Saturday, December 20, 2008

Homily Fourth Sunday of Advent Year B

Below is my homily on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent:

Today we have finally reached the Fourth Sunday of Advent. During the tail-end of this season, from Dec 17 to 23, the Church observes the ancient custom of praying on each day one of the seven “O” Antiphons. They are called “O” Antiphons because each one addresses the Son of God with a different Old Testament title, beginning with the invocation “O”. These texts, traced back to seventh-century Europe, are drenched in biblical allusions offering a rich source for personal prayer and reflection during these final days of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. They also appear in the liturgy as the Gospel acclamations for each day and there is a verse for each one in the famous hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. So, for example, up until today we have prayed to God the Son “O Wisdom”, “O Root of Jesse”, and “O Key of David”. After today we will pray to Him “O King of Nations” and finally “O Emmanuel.” But today, we pray to Him “O Dayspring”.[1] There is a beautiful hymn that accompanies this day:
O very God of very God,
And very Light of Light,
Whose feet this earth’s dark valley trod,
That so it might be bright:

Our hopes are weak, our fears are strong,
Thick darkness blinds our eyes;
Cold is the night, and, oh, we long
That you, our Sun, would rise!

And even now, through dull and grey,
The east is brightening fast,
And kindling to the perfect day
That never shall be past.

Oh, guide us till our path is done,
And we have reached the shore
Where you, our Everlasting Sun,
Are shining evermore![2]
We are beginning to see, coming from the East, the rays of the brightly shining Everlasting Son of God beaming from the Christ Child. But, in our readings today we do not see him, he is not here yet. If our readings are supposed to encapsulate the day, then where do these glimmers of light in the distance come from? Are they merely an illusion from our minds weakened by darkness, from our eyes straining to see? No, Christ is indeed shining in our readings. Resting in the womb of His Blessed Mother, he shines forth in her beauty, the beauty of the Ark of the New Covenant, just as God centuries before shined forth to his chosen people from the Ark of the Old Covenant. This is the Light we are seeing, the light bursting forth from the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Now, every time I think of the Ark of the Covenant I think of that Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. There, Indiana and his trusty Egyptian sidekick break through the roof of the Well of Souls and Indiana has to go first through all the snakes and cobras. They finally hoist the Ark out of the Well only to have it taken by the Nazis. So I imagine this huge golden chest between two long poles as it’s depicted in the movie.

Actually in the Old Testament it’s described as being only about 2.5ft square and about 4.5ft long, not near as imposing as in the movie but it was equally elaborate. It was made of special acacia wood which was incorruptible, was covered inside and out with the purest, finest gold, and had a ring of gold on top. On each of the two sides were two gold rings that two wooden poles went through to allow the Ark to be carried. Even these poles were sheathed in gold. Over the Ark, at the two extremities, were two cherubim, with their faces turned toward one another. Their outspread wings over the top of the Ark formed the throne of God, while the Ark itself was his footstool.[3]

The Ark of the Covenant was so magnificent because it stood for God’s very presence among the Hebrews. The Book of Lamentations called is “the beauty of Israel.” It also held inside three items that were crucial to their faith and identity: the tablets of the 10 commandments of God’s Law; a golden vase containing the manna that fed them in the desert; and Aaron’s rod that bloomed in affirmation of his priesthood. But the beauty of the ark was not only due to what it symbolized or what it contained but what it prefigured, what it pointed to in the future: The beauty of the purity of the Ark of the New Covenant: The Blessed Virgin Mary.

St. Luke, in our Gospel today, is very careful with the words he uses. He purposefully alludes to Old Testament images to highlight the point that they are now fulfilled. Some of his passages are direct references to the Old Testament promises while other words are only faint whispers of the stories faithful Jews were raised to know by heart.[4] Sometimes I wish I could have one of his original audience, a first century Israelite mixed among the Gentile Christians. What Joy they must have felt when they first heard St. Luke use this reference or that turn of phrase that brought to mind all they had lived and died for, for centuries – all their hopes and dreams – finally fulfilled in Jesus Christ! No word in our Gospel reading today is accidental. The point St. Luke is trying to make is that we now have a New Ark of a New Covenant with a beauty the Old Ark only aspired to have.
This point is packed with meaning! First the gold lining and covering of the old Ark point to the Immaculate purity of the Virgin Mary, the New Ark. And do you remember the three things the old Ark contained – The tablets of the Law, the golden vase of manna, and the rod of Aaron? These are also in the New Ark for Jesus Christ is the author of the Law, He is the Bread of Life, the Bread from Heaven, and he is the eternal High Priest. That’s pretty cool! Mary now assumes a role in Salvation History that was once played by the old Ark of the Covenant. Like this golden chest, she is a sacred vessel where the Lord’s presence dwells intimately with his people.[5]

“Ave!” – “Hail!” the Archangel Gabriel exclaims to her, “full of grace! The Lord is with you.” This salutation, “Hail!” meant “Rejoice” to the Hebrew people and it was their cry of Joy because God had chosen to dwell in their midst. Mary is greeted with this same cry of Joy because she is the embodiment of faithful Israel and in her very midst indeed dwells our Lord and God![6] Also, by calling her “full of grace” we have the only instance in the Bible where an angel greets a person by a title instead of a name.[7] This shows her singular importance among the history of mankind. And because fullness admits nothing else, Gabriel teaches us that Mary has been and is now filled with divine life and therefore free from all sin from the moment of her conception. When Gabriel explains how Mary is to bear the Light of the World, he says very carefully that “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” This is the same expression used in the Greek version of the Book of Exodus to describe how Yahweh “overshadowed” the Tabernacle and the Ark, making it his dwelling place in Israel.[8]

These are actually only a few of the parallels between the Ark of the Covenant and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Others are described further on in Luke, past what our reading today describes. These are fine for now though because I wanted you all to see the outstanding beauty that Luke attributes to our Blessed Mother. She gives us hope to keep squinting for the light of the New Day ahead, Christmas Morning when Christ, the Light of the World, will dispel the darkness of sin and death. Mary’s beauty glows with this Light so let us draw near to her during this week, trusting that she will soon show us the Light of a New Hope, a New Way, a New Life, a New Day fulfilling all of God’s promises. Let us find joy in our remaining preparation. Let us rejoice with Mary in the silence of our hearts. Let us hear her sweet voice singing
O come, O Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadow put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!

[1] “Praying the ‘O’ Antiphons”, The Magnificat Advent Companion, p. 83-91
[2] Ibid., p. 83
[3] "Ark of the Covenant." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 17 Dec 2008, 15:06 UTC. 19 Dec 2008 .
[4] “Mary, Ark of the Covenant”, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: Luke, by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, p. 21
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., Commentary on Lk 1:28 “Hail”, p. 19
[7] Ibid., Commentary on Lk 1:28 “full of grace”
[8] Ibid., Commentary on Lk 1:35 “overshadow you”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A really beautiful and inspitational homily. Nm