Third in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Readings: Micah 5:1-4a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45
We are less than one week away now from our annual celebration of the Nativity! And our readings today convey a sense of this great anticipation: we have the Micah prophecy of the coming ruler to be born at Bethlehem, and Mary’s journey “in haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
Like last week’s First Reading, the Micah prophecy dates to the decades before the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah and looks forward to the coming of a ruler who will restore the kingdom to itself. The prophecy indicates that this ruler will come from Bethlehem, the city where the great unifying king David was born, and that his “origin is from of old, from ancient times.” So important was this prophecy that King Herod’s scribes would use it, according to Matthew’s Gospel, to determine where the Messiah was to be born when the magi came calling. Then our Gospel reading, where Luke tells of the newly-pregnant Mary’s visitation her cousin Elizabeth in the Judean countryside – about 650 years after the Micah prophecy – would appear to confirm quite neatly the fulfillment of the prophecy. Elizabeth herself is six months pregnant with John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Testament, and she recognizes the presence of the Lord within Mary. As determined by Luke through his research of the stories and traditions of these events, “the infant leaped in her womb” – even in their fetal states, he who is to prepare the way of the Lord announces His approach.
So here, it seems, is the promised Prince of Peace, foretold for several hundred years – the Power of the Most High Himself assuming the flesh of Mary. And He will, as we know, be born at Bethlehem (more on that in Part 4). But why? Why should it seem that neat and tidy? Why must it be this way? Just what is going on here?
The Letter to the Hebrews from which our Second Reading is taken gives us our answers, and it sheds light on the old prophecies by revealing the implications of the events of the Gospel. This is a beautiful theological work, it attempted to present the framework of salvation in Christ as the completion of a great Jewish covenantal operation. And it tells us that the salvation needed to bring the sort of lasting peace ensured by the ancient prophecy needed to go beyond the repetitive sacrifices and offerings that were required by the Law. These things were repeated not because they were intended to last – they weren’t. God required these things of His people, but He took no pleasure in them of themselves. He took pleasure in the loving obedience of His people, which was the real reason for these repeated actions. He was like a good Father Who gives His children chores and responsibilities not to punish them or to make their lives difficult, but to train them how to be proper adults and how to be the best versions of themselves in a world that wants to close in around them. And so the more His people followed His Law in a disposition of loving obedience, the more they would find their lives ordered towards Him Who is their final destiny (see Part 1).
What was required, then, for this lasting peace was a supreme act of loving obedience – an ultimate sacrifice, if you will – “the offering of the body…once and for all.” The only one who had the power to perform such a completely orthodox action was the One “[W]hose origin is from of old, from ancient times,” the One Who instituted this Law to begin with. But the only fitting way for Him to do so was in a body. He had to become one of His people, living among them as fully one of them; He had to make Himself subject to His own Law so that He could now show how it would be fulfilled. In an unfathomably compassionate act, He Himself would be both the offering and the offerer.
Is it any wonder that the symbol of the Divine Mercy is the “Blood and Water which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus” as He hung on the Cross? Is it any wonder that His unwavering Mother Mary, she “who believed that what was spoken to [her] by the Lord would be fulfilled,” is venerated not only as the Queen Mother of the eternal King of Israel, but even so as the Queen of Mercy?
He is indeed coming to shepherd His people. And He shall be peace.