4th SUNDAY IN ADVENT (Cycle C)

Readings:
Micah 5:1-4a
Psalm 80:2, 3b, 15-16, 18-19
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of the Readings: Recognizing the Messiah
In this last Sunday in Advent, the Church's Liturgy reveals the true identity of the Redeemer-Messiah whose coming was promised from the time of Adam's fall (Gen 3:15) and foretold down through the centuries by the holy prophets.  In the First Reading, we learn that one of those prophets was the 6th BC century prophet Micah.  Micah reveals that the Messiah will be a ruler whose origin is from ancient times.  The faithful must look for His mother to give birth in Bethlehem, the city of the great King David with whom God made an eternal covenant and promised an heir from David's lineage would rule forever.  Micah prophesies that His is rule will be universal, reaching "to the ends of the earth."

Today's Second Reading tells us that Jesus is that promised Davidic heir.  He is both the son of David (Mt 1:1; Lk 1:31-33) and the only begotten Son of God (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; Heb 1:5; 5:5; 11:17; 1 Jn 4:9).  He is also the New Covenant High Priest who, unlike the Old Covenant high priests who were selected because of their hereditary link to Aaron the first high priest, was chosen by God like the ancient priest-king Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-20; Ps 110:4) who gave a blessing to Abraham and offered him bread and wine. 

In the Gospel Reading, two mothers take center stage in salvation History: Mary of Nazareth and her kinswoman Elizabeth.  Mothers are the people who first set a child on the path of life and their influence can have a profound impact on the future of a child.  It was for this reason that the books of Kings and Chronicles name the mothers of the Davidic kings who bore the heirs of the Davidic covenant.  The Messiah's mother is identified by the prophet Isaiah as a virgin from the house of David who was to give birth to a son (Is 7:14; Mt 1:23), and "she who is to give birth" in Bethlehem from Micah's prophecy in our First Reading.  

Jesus' mother, the Virgin Mary of Nazareth, is a descendant of King David (Lk 1:32); she is the first person to know His true identity, and she is His first disciple.  In our Gospel Reading, when Mary visits her kinswoman Elizabeth, Elizabeth's baby, St. John the Baptist who is filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother's womb, leaps for joy to be in the presence of the Redeemer-Messiah in Mary's womb.  And his mother, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declares that Mary is "the mother of my Lord" (referring to God) who has honored her with His presence (Lk 1:40-45).

Do you also recognize Jesus' true identity?  Is He your Lord and your God who came to save you from your sins and to set you on the path to eternal life?   If so, rejoice as St. John the Baptist and his mother rejoiced because your understanding of Jesus' true identity is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

The First Reading Micah 5:1-4a ~ The Messiah from Bethlehem
1 Thus says the LORD: You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among [least among] among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from old, from ancient times.  2 Therefore the LORD will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel.  3 He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the LORD, in the majestic name of the LORD, his God; and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; 4a he shall be peace.

The 8th century BC prophet Micah was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah.  His ministry lasted from c. 750 – 687 BC, during the reigns of Davidic kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (Mic 1:1).
Bethlehem was a small village about five miles south of Jerusalem in the region of Ephrath (Gen 35:16, 19; 1 Sam 17:12).  It was the ancestral home of Naomi and her Judahite kinsman Boaz who married the Moabitess Ruth, the great-grandmother of God' anointed, the shepherd boy who became king, David son of Jesse (Ruth 4:21-22; 1 Sam 16:1, 11-13).

In this prophecy, Micah announces that the Redeemer-Messiah, promised since the fall of Adam (Gen 3:15) will be born of a woman in the village of Bethlehem, whose name means "house of bread."  He will be a future ruler of humble origins like his ancestor King David, and He will rule over not only Israel but His divine authority will extend to the ends of the earth and He will inaugurate an era of peace with God (verses 3-4a).  No Davidic king or his mother fulfills this description offered by Micah of the messiah and his mother (the "she" of verse 3) other than Jesus and Mary; and Micah's prophecy recalls passages from Isaiah 7:14; 9:5-6; 11:1-4, and from God's eternal covenant with David that his heir will rule forever (2 Sam 7:12-16; 23:5; Ps 89:3, etc.). 

Jewish tradition interprets Malachi 5:1-4 as a messianic prophecy.  This can be seen in the writings of the Jewish Talmud (Pesahim, 51.1 and Nedarim, 39.2).  In the New Testament, St. Matthew applies this prophecy to Mary and Jesus, quoting Micah 5:1 from the LXX (Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament which varies slightly from the Hebrew) as a fulfillment passage (Mt 2:4-6).  Matthew writes: "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel."  Micah relates that the promised Messiah is more than a man since his "origin is from old, from ancient times," and Micah's "shepherd" imagery recalls the Messiah's Bethlehem ancestor, the shepherd boy David who God anointed to "shepherd" His people Israel (2 Sam 5:1-2; Mt 1:1).  Jesus will identify Himself as the "Good Shepherd" (Jn chapter 10) who has come to gather in the "lost sheep" of the house of Israel (Mt 10:6; 15:24; 18:11; Lk 15:6).  And when the Magi came seeking the newborn King of the Jews, St. Matthew will record the chief priests telling Herod that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea, quoting Malachi 5:1 in Matthew 2:6.  Also in St. John's Gospel, he records the opinion of the religious leaders' response to Jesus coming from the Galilee that Jesus cannot be the Messiah when they protest: Is the Christ to come from the Galilee?  Has not the Scripture said that the Christ is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village here David was? (Jn 7:40-42).

Christian tradition has always seen Micah 5:1-4 as an announcement of Jesus the Christ's ("Christos" is the Greek word Christians used for the Hebrew word "Messiah") birth in Bethlehem, a village whose name fittingly means "house of bread" as the birthplace of He who announced that He came to be the "bread of life" for the salvation of mankind (Jn 6:35).  The early Christian apologist, Tertullian, wrote: "Since the children of Israel accuse us of grave error because we believe in Christ, who has come, let us show them from the Scriptures that the Christ who was foretold has come [...].  He was born in Bethlehem in Judah, as the prophet foretold: 'But you, O Bethlehem are by no means least ...' (Mal 5:2)" (Adversus Iudaeos, 13).  And St. Irenaeus wrote: "In his day, the prophet Micah told us of the place where the Christ would be born: Bethlehem, in Judah.  'O Bethlehem ..., too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler of Israel.'  Bethlehem is also the homeland of David, and Christ was from the line of David, not only because he was born of the Virgin, but because he was born in Bethlehem" (Demonstratio praedicationis apostolicae, 63).

Responsorial: Psalm 80:2, 3b, 15-16, 18-19 ~ Turn to the Lord and see His Face
The response is: "Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved."
 
2 O shepherd of Israel, harken, from your throne upon the cherubim, shine forth.  [...].  Rouse your power, and come to save us. 
Response:
15 Once again, O LORD of hosts, look down from heaven, and see; take care of this vine, 16 and protect what your right hand has planted, the son of man whom you yourself made strong.
Response:
18 May your help be with the man of your right hand, with the son of man whom you yourself made strong.  19 Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name.
Response:

This psalm is a community lament offered when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was threatened by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC.  The people of the Northern Kingdom had apostatized from their covenant with Yahweh.   They no longer were obedient to the Law, they abandoned the Temple in Jerusalem, and they worshipped Yahweh together with false gods whenever and wherever they pleased.  In verse 2 the people acknowledge that they are still the flock of God's pasture and God is their divine Shepherd (also see Ps 79:13 in the previous psalm).  They make their petition for God's intervention to save Israel directly to Yahweh's divine presence that is enthroned above the cherubim of the Ark of the Covenant that is kept in Israel's most sacred shrine, the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple in the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Ex 25:10-17, 22; 26:34). 

The people complain that because God is angry with them that He has broken down the wall protecting the once splendid "vine" of Israel that He redeemed from Egypt and planted in the Promised Land (verses 15-16).  The "vine" is a metaphor for Israel that is frequently used in Scripture and is one of the reoccurring symbolic images of the prophets (see Is 5:1-7; 27:2-5; Jer 2:21; Hos 10:1; and in the New Testament Mt 21:22).  The Israelites petition God in verses 16 and 18 to send a "strong man"—a "son of man," meaning a human being chosen by God and upon whom God's favor rests, to save them from destruction.  They are probably thinking of a "son of man" who is another David.  Then they promise if God will send such a man to save them that they will repent and will turn once again to God and will be obedient to His covenant (verse 19). 

When the time is right, at a turning point in salvation history, God will send a "Son of Man" who is also a son of David to save His covenant people.  "The Son of Man" is Jesus' favorite title for Himself (He uses the tile for Himself c. 80 times in the Gospels).  He will come to save not only the "lost sheep" of Israel but to redeem all of mankind and to fulfill the prophet Daniel's vision of "one like a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven" to whom God gives "dominion, glory, and kingship" (Dan 7:13).  He is the "Good Shepherd" who "lays down His life for His sheep" (Jn 10:12-14).  "Nations and peoples of every language serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed" (Dan 7:14).

The Second Reading Hebrews 10:5-10 ~ Consecrated through the Messiah to do God's Will
5 For this reason, when he came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6 holocausts and sins offerings you took no delight in.  7 Then I said, 'As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do your will, O God.'" 8 First he says, "Sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings, you neither desired nor delighted in."  9 These are offered according to the law.  Then he says, "Behold, I come to do your will."  He takes away the first to establish the second.  10 By this "will," we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 

He who came into the world is Jesus Christ and it Christ who is the implied speaker.  The inspired writer's argument concerning the imperfection of blood sacrifice is that God Himself rejected animal sacrifice as a means of atoning for sins when He sent His Son to be the unblemished sacrifice to redeem man from his sins. 

The inspired writer of Hebrews has already identified David as the inspired writer of the Psalms in Hebrews 4:7 and at the end of this quotation the writer of Hebrews offers through the quotation that the Law of Sinai [Law of Moses], or what is "written in the scroll," predates the Psalms which comes centuries after the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai from the time of King David and during the period of the United Monarchy.  It is likely that the Law is the subject of the scroll mentioned because "the Law" is also the scroll or book mentioned in Hebrews 9:19 and the inadequacy of the Law to bring salvation has been a major theme of the letter.  If the regulations of the Law foreshadowed what has been accomplished in the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, then Jesus is, according to the inspired writer of Hebrews, uniquely qualified to speak to us prophetically through His ancestor David concerning the imperfect and inadequacy of the Levitical sacrifices which are only a shadow of what is to come.

In Hebrews 10:5b-7 the inspired writer quotes directly from the Septuagint translation verses 7-9a [verses 6-8 in some translations] from Psalm 40 [in the Septuagint it is Psalm 39:7-9].   Significant differences are found in the phrase "but a body you prepared (fashioned) for me" which is missing from the Jewish Massoretic version.  This is a significant variation since the New Testament writer of Hebrews identifies this passage as a prophecy of the Incarnation and Christ's submission to the will of the Father in His self-sacrifice. 

Hebrews 10:7 ~ Then I said, 'As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do you will, O God.'"
The literal translation of "as it written of me in the scroll" is "as it is written of me in the head of the scroll".  This may refer to the knob on the top of the wooden rod upon which was wound the leather scroll with the sacred words of God—in other words the "part" which is the stick upon which the whole text is wound may signify the "whole" of the entire text of Sacred Scripture.  Jesus taught the Apostles in Luke 24:25-27 and in 24:44-45 that everything written in the Scriptures was about Him—the inspired writer of Hebrews believes this includes Psalm 39 in the Septuagint.  This passage points to the inadequacy of all the Old Covenant sacrifices and offerings.  It also makes it clear from a time before the Incarnation of Christ that sacred Scripture pointed to the coming of the Messiah to fulfill the Law and to do God's will.  St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 15:3-4 concerning Christ's death being the fulfillment of Sacred Scripture: For I handed on to you as of first importance which I also received: That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third  day in accordance with the Scriptures...  In connecting this particular passage from the psalms to Jesus, the inspired writer emphasizes not only the fulfillment of Scripture but Jesus' complete submission to the will of God as expressed by Jesus in Matthew 26:42: My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking, it, your will be done!"  And as St. Paul wrote in Philippians 2:8, Jesus completely submitted Himself to the will of the Father in that: ...he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. 

Assuming this psalm was written in King David's time, the reference to Scripture may be referring to Deuteronomy 18:18-19 when God told Moses and the people, I shall raise up a prophet like yourself; I shall put my words into his mouth and he will tell them everything I command him.  If any man will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.  In the experience of the Transfiguration, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him" was the command the three Apostles heard from Heaven (Mt 17:5, emphasis added).

Psalm 39 from the Septuagint also emphasizes that the performance of the Law's external demands only pointed to what God truly required which was an inward change as expressed by the prophet Hosea in 6:6: For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts.  Jesus submitted to the will of God in order to transform hearts and bring about what the Law wasn't capable of achieving.  Only Jesus, through the purification of His atoning sacrifice, could fulfill what the Law was incapable of fulfilling. Jesus made statements to this effect in the Gospels:

Hebrews 10:8-10 ~ 8 First he says, "Sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings, you neither desired nor delighted in."  9 These are offered according to the law.  Then he says, "Behold, I come to do your will."  He takes away the first to establish the second.  10 By this "will," we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 
The inspired writer offers a teaching on the passage from Psalm 39:7-9 from the Septuagint version of Sacred Scripture but he is also connecting that passage to the words of the Prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:22:

It was the Prophet Samuel who anointed David to be King of Israel (1 Sam chapter 16).  It was Samuel who was David's first teacher and David, according to the psalm quoted earlier, certainly learned this lesson from Samuel—it is obedience and submission to His will that God wants and not the blood of animals.

What does the inspired writer of Hebrews mean when he says God took away "the first to establish the second"?  What is the first; what is the second?  Under the Law of the Old Covenant sacrificial system there were various kinds of sacrifices.  The inspired writer mentions two different kinds of animal sacrifice:

  1. Animal sacrifices where the whole animal was consumed in the fire on the altar were known as "holocaust"  or "whole burnt" offerings
  2. Sin sacrifices in which the sinner confessed his sin over the animal and the animal then died in his place, its blood "covering" the sin of the repentant individual.  This sacrifice was eaten by the priests and their families

But  the first sacrifice, the animal's flesh and blood, was not what God desired—He wanted repentant and purified hearts that could be cleanse completely of sins: Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, and so God provided the perfect sacrifice: but a body you prepared for me—the Incarnation of the Son.  In the self-sacrifice of the Son God has removed the necessity of animal sacrifice, offering instead the flesh and blood of the second, the Son who is the Lamb of God and who has established the perfect and eternal sacrifice for the consecration of mankind.  It was through the obedient "will" of Jesus to offer Himself up in sacrifice that we have been consecrated—the will of God, which Jesus fulfilled, abolished the Old imperfect sacrifices to establish the New for the sanctification of believers (Mt 18:14; Gal 1:4; Eph 1:5, 9, 11) through the offering of body of Jesus Christ once and for all (Heb 10:10) to bring man to salvation:

The Old Law served its purpose as a tutor and a guide to prepare God's covenant people to understand the necessity of blood sacrifice, to provide a path to holiness, as preparation for the Gospel, and to recognize the coming of the Redeemer-Messiah.  But it was deficient in that it could not offer the gift of eternal salvation or the gift of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which become the gifts of the Church in the New Covenant Kingdom that is the Church of God the Son (see CCC 1963-64).

The Gospel of Luke 1:39-45 ~ The Visitation: Mary journeys from Nazareth to the house of Zechariah
39 During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  43 And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  44 For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.  45 Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."

After the angel's visit in the Annunciation, Mary immediately set out to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth in Judea.  She probably joined a caravan traveling to Jerusalem, making the 7-8 day journey from Nazareth in the Galilee to the hill country of Judea and the town of her kinswoman Elizabeth.  According to a Christian tradition that predates the Crusades, Elizabeth and her husband, the priest Zechariah, lived in the Judean town of Ein Kerem, about four miles west of Jerusalem (Shrines of the Holy Land, pages 125-29).  After the return from the Babylonian exile, the Book of Nehemiah records that the chief priests took up residence in or near Jerusalem (Neh 11:3).

As was the custom, Elizabeth was in seclusion for the first five months of her pregnancy, as the ancients counted without the concept of a zero place-value (Lk 1:24).  It is now the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, but only the fifth month as we count (Lk 1:36), when Mary traveled to visit her.  Mary's desire to visit her kinswoman is probably prompted by the Holy Spirit as well as by her need to share her experience with someone who will understand.

Luke 1:41-42 ~ When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 
When Mary entered her house and Elizabeth first heard Mary's voice (Lk 1:40), the fetus of St. John the Baptist, recognizing the presence of his Lord, leapt for joy within his mother's womb (Lk 1:41, 44).  The unborn St. John's response to Mary and the Christ within her womb recalls God's words to Jeremiah: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you (Jer 1:5).  Think of the horror of abortion that is taking place daily as children, personally known by God from the womb and given as His holy gift, are violently murdered before (and in some cases after) birth.  

In Elizabeth's Holy Spirit inspired greeting to her kinswoman, she gives three blessings in verses 42-45:

  1. She blesses Mary
  2. She blesses Jesus
  3. She blesses the faith God has given Mary

Elizabeth's third blessing for Mary: Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled, is given in contrast to Zechariah's unbelief.  Mary is the first Christian.  Her belief does not waver during the years of Jesus' ministry or during His Passion.  She will be faithfully praying together with those believed and waited for the coming of the Paraclete in the Upper Room after Jesus' Ascension (Acts 1:13-14).

Luke 1:43 And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
Bible scholars both ancient and modern have seen the similarity of Elizabeth's rhetorical question in Luke 1:43 and King David's rhetorical question when he said: How can the Ark of the Lord come to me? in 2 Samuel 6:9, speaking of the Ark of the Covenant.  They have seen Elizabeth's question as an intentional comparison between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant, the dwelling place of the Lord God (see the chart on Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant).  A deliberate comparison seems to be confirmed by verse 56 where Mary is said to stay in Elizabeth's house in the Judean hill country three months—just as the Ark stayed in the Judean hill country housed of Obed-edom for three months in 2 Samuel 6:11.

When Elizabeth refers to "my Lord" in verse 43 and to "the Lord" in verse 45, she is referring to Jesus in verse 43 and God in verse 45.  She is referring to the Divinity of Jesus and therefore to Mary as "the mother of God."  It is by the strength of Elizabeth's statement, prompted by the Holy Spirit, that the Council of Ephesus declared Mary not only the "Mother of Jesus" but also the "Mother of God" in 431 AD.  CCC 495: Called in the Gospels "the mother of Jesus," Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as "the mother of my Lord."  In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father's eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity.  Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly "Mother of God" (Theotokos).  Also see CCC 466, 495 and 509.

From what Elizabeth says in verse 45, she not only knows what the angel Gabriel told her husband but also what Gabriel told Mary.  This knowledge was imparted to her by the Holy Spirit in the moment of her joy but other information must also have been imparted to her by her husband (see 1:60 where she knows the name of the child before Zechariah's speech has returned).  For other references to the expression "fruit of your womb" in Scripture see Deuteronomy 7:13 where God promised to bless Israel for covenant obedience: He will love and bless and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the produce of your soil...  Also see Psalms 127:3 where it is written: Children too are a gift from the LORD, the fruit of the womb, a reward.  To reject the birth of a child is to reject a gift from God.

St. Elizabeth, like the Virgin Mary, knows Jesus' true identity; it is a revelation revealed to Mary by the angel Gabriel and to her kinswoman by God the Holy Spirit.  Has He revealed Jesus' true identity to you, and do you recognize His visitation to you in the miracle of the Eucharist when He comes, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to greet you as a disciple and to nourish you on your path to salvation?  If so, share the joy of your revelation with everyone you meet, for you are keeping company with saints and angels in the knowledge the Holy Spirit has revealed to you!

Catechism References:

Hebrews 10:5-10 (CCC 606); 10:5-7 (CCC 462, 516, 2568)
Luke 1:41 (CCC 523, 717, 2676); 1:43 (CCC 448, 495, 2677); 1:45 (CCC 148, 2676)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2015