The Fourth Sunday of Advent - 23 December 2012

Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 15, Magnificat, St. Luke 1:46-55
Psalm 80:1-7 Qui regis Israel
Hebrews 10:5-10
Saint Luke 1:39-55


Background: Bethlehem
Today’s first reading brings our attention to Bethlehem, traditionally the birthplace not only of our Lord, but of David as well.  It is a symbolic center of the David traditions, and thus a point of focus for the traditions surrounding Jesus as well.  The name means Bet (house) Lehem (of bread), although older usage might have been Bit Lahmi, or House of Lachmo, an Akkadian fertility god.  There was a temple dedicated to this deity built in the third millennium BCE, located where the Church of the Nativity stands today.  A recent archaeological find, a dried clay seal with the words, “From the town of Bethlehem to the King”, indicating a payment of taxes in the form of some kind of commodity.  The seal dates from either the eighth or seventh century BCE. 

Bethlehem has been associated with other place names: Ephrathah (which means “fertile”), Judah, and “the city of David”.  It is also associated with other familiar characters from the Biblical record: Rachel (her burial place), Naomi and Ruth, and finally David.  Ruth and David are recorded as forbearers in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.  In 326 CE, St. Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine built a basilica in honor of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  The church was destroyed in 529 CE, and rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian I in 565 BCE.

Micah 5:2-5a

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

The prophet Micah (737-690 BCE) follows the pattern of many of the prophets, detailing the anger that God has for those who have forsaken the worship of YHWH, and the punishments that will follow.  The book has three sections: Chapters 1-2, 3-5, 6-7, each of which begin with the word “Hear!” and are made up of oracles of judgment and oracles of restoration.  The section from which our reading this morning is taken, probably dates from the period of Exile (after 583 BCE), for in chapter 4 we are given to understand that there “was no king in Zion.”  The oracle that Micah, or a later Micah, utters here understands a promise from God to fill the void.  Again Bethlehem is the source of kingship (although the coming of a “king” is not specifically mentioned.  Rather it is someone who will “rule in Israel” and whose anointing comes from ancient precedent and promise.  There are signs of kingship noted, however.  The words indicating that this new ruler will rule as a “shepherd” was an ancient notation of kingship. Please note the phrases in the Psalm for today (below) which echoes the God (and the King) who is a shepherd. Thus this oracle is freighted with messianic promise, and is appealing to those who wrote the Christian Gospel.

Breaking open Micah:

1.     What does Micah want you to Hear! in this reading?
2.     How do you understand the promises of the verse in your time?
3.     How is God a shepherd to you?

Canticle 15, The Song of Mary, Magnificat
Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

For commentary on the Magnificat, please see the commentary on the Gospel, below.


Psalm 80:1-7 Qui regis Israel

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.

In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

O LORD God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?

You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.

You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

The text indicates that this psalm is to be sung to the tune, “Lilies”, the melody of which is lost to us.  The psalm is a lament, calling to the mind of the singer the loss of the Northern Kingdom.  It’s placement after Psalm 79, which comments on the fall of the Southern Kingdom, is perhaps to allow it to lament both situations.  As such it is a commentary on the passage from Micah, which also deals with the reality of a defeated Israel. 

Manasseh and Ephraim were northern tribes, and the pastoral images center these verses in a rural context – a context from which came the Davidic kings.  There are urban references, however.  The shepherd God, is pictured as being enthroned upon the cherubim – as on the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple in Jerusalem.  There is a beauty to the lament, “the bread of tears” and the “bowl of tears” are especially lovely means to describing the lamentable condition of the people.  Also of interest is the semi-quotation of the Aaronic blessing in the third verse, “show us the light of your countenance.” 

A bit of a rant here:  I hope that you will be drawn to using the Psalm rather than the canticle.  Its announcement in the Gospel seems more fitting and completes the visitation with Elizabeth.  I’ve been in parishes where the Magnificat is sung as the Psalm, is quoted in the Gospel, is versified in a hymn, and then is sung by a choir in an anthem.  Overkill.

Breaking open Psalm 80:1-7:
1.       What have you lamented in your life?
2.       How has God comforted you in the midst of that lament?
3.       What is “the light of God’s countenance “ to you?

Hebrews 10:5-10

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

"Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, 'See, God, I have come to do your will, O God'
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me)."

When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

In this last section of the letter to the Hebrews, we leave behind the descriptions of heavenly worship and again focus on earthly realities.  What is described is the new manner of sacrifice that is informed by the sacrifice of Jesus.  In a quotation from Psalm 40:6-8, the author grounds his vision of the new sacrifice in the psalm’s understanding of God’s desires and will which are put into the mouth of the Christ, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired…” He sets up a contrast between the old rite and the new.  The sacrifices (burnt offerings, sin offerings, etc.) are from ancient times, but the new sacrifice seems to demand only one thing, “I have come to do your will.”

Breaking open Hebrews:

1.               Have you ever sacrificed something?
2.               What was it?  How did it feel?
3.               What are your thoughts on the crucifixion?

Luke 1:39-55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

And Mary said,

"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

We need to understand what has happened before, so that we can understand the four separate actions of this reading: the visit, the Elizabeth’s prophetic understanding, Mary’s song, and Mary’s sojourn and return (not included in this reading).  Prior to this we have two annunciations, one regarding the birth of John the Baptist, and the other regarding the birth of Jesus.  The first is given to Elizabeth’s husband – the priest, while the latter is given to Mary herself.  What is interesting in this pericope is that we have a reaction from a second-hand witness (Elizabeth) who projects a theological understanding to the experience of a first-hand witness (Mary).  Elizabeth’s comments signal the end of one era and the beginning of another.  The notion of “fulfillment” relates not only to the angel’s announcement to Mary, but to the fulfillment of the promises of the prophets that precede this scene.

Mary’s response, the Magnificat, is a collection of Old Testament phrases, and its structure and content are remarkably like that of Hannah, the mother of Samuel in I Samuel 2:1-10.  Indeed, the song of Hannah could inform both of the mothers, for Elizabeth shares a situation of barrenness with Hannah.  In the song Luke again takes an opportunity to foreshadow his agenda of “lifting up the lowly” (to quote the canticle itself).  In it God is seen as a promise to Israel, and the future is blessed because of the evidence of what God has done.  The social situations of society are contrasted (much as they are in Luke’s Beatitudes), as the rich are made poor, and the hungry are filled.  What is missing from the pericope used in the lectionary is Mary’s sojourn of three months (some initial pondering) and her return to home.  It is a shame that this verse is elided, for it might give clues to the reader and those worshipping with these texts as to how to take in Advent.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Mary and Elizabeth are cousins – how are they related in other ways?
  2. What do you think of the social agenda that Luke promotes in the Magnificat?
  3. What do you ponder this Advent?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2012 Michael T. Hiller


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