Monday, December 19, 2011

Homily 4th Sun Advent Year B – The Consoling Light of the New Ark

new ark Today we have finally reached the Fourth and last Sunday of Advent. During the tail-end of this season, from Dec 17 to 23, the Church observes the ancient custom of praying, during Evening Prayer each day, one of the seven “O” Antiphons. The “O” Antiphons are Old Testament titles for the Messiah, each beginning with the invocation “O”. They are “O Wisdom,” “O Lord,” “O Root of Jesse,” “O Key of David,” “O Dayspring,” “O King of Nations” and finally “O Emmanuel.” There is a verse for each one in the famous hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. They are also references to the prophecy of Isaiah and are a rich source for personal prayer and reflection during these final days of preparation for Christmas.[1] Today’s title is “O Lord,” but I want to reflect on “O Dayspring,” (or “O Morning Star” or “O Light from the East”) because next Sunday is Christmas and as some of us get a little blue this time of year, it may be helpful to see Christ’s coming as one that can bring light into our lives. There is a beautiful hymn that accompanies his title, “O Dayspring”:[2]

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!

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, it seems that he is not here yet. Where do these glimmers of light in the distance come from? Are they merely an illusion from our minds weakened by darkness or sadness, 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 in the beauty of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Your mental image of the Ark of the Covenant may be like mine. Sometimes I imagine 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 ends, 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 built so magnificently because it stood for God’s very presence among the Hebrews. The Book of Lamentations called it “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 from heaven that fed them in the desert; and the rod of the high priest, Aaron, 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 and purity of the Ark of the New Covenant: The Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the point that St. Luke is trying to make in today’s Gospel: 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 pointed to the Immaculate purity of the Virgin Mary, the New Ark. And the three things the old Ark contained – The tablets of the Law, the golden vase of manna, and the rod of Aaron – are also in the New Ark in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the author of the Law, He is the Bread from Heaven, and He is the eternal High Priest. 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.[4]

“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![5] 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.[6] 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 Book of Exodus to describe how Yahweh “overshadowed” the Ark, making it his dwelling place in Israel.[7]

I know this is a bit academic, but the reason I have described some of the parallels between the old Ark of the Covenant and the Blessed Virgin Mary is 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 sadness. Mary’s beauty glows with this Light so that we can 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. We can find joy in our remaining preparation. We can rejoice with Mary in the silence of our hearts. We can hear her sweet voice singing to us, the New Israel:

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., footnote Lk 1:28 “Hail”, p. 19
[6] Ibid., footnote Lk 1:28 “full of grace”
[7] Ibid., footnote Lk 1:35 “overshadow you”

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