The readings for this week, which bring us up to Christmas, are concerned with the title of Jesus the ‘Son of David’. At the time of the gospels, this was important to show that he was the expected the ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’. For us, it places him in the line of the hopes and prophecies of the Jewish religion that a basis of Christian identity.
2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16
The background: When the Hebrew people and wandered through the Sinai desert after escaping from Egypt, the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ was thought of as the place where God dwelt among his people. It was kept in a tent, often translated ‘tabernacle’, a word used in our churches for the place holding the Blessed Sacrament. (Instructions for the Ark are in Exodus 25, a description combining later developments.) As some nomads still do today, the people would also use tents which are easily set up and taken down when they moved pastures. After David had conquered the land, he settled in Jerusalem and had the travelling Ark brought to his citadel. Now he aware of the striking difference of his living in what was the equivalent of a palace at that time while God’s place was still a wanderer’s tent.
Nathan first tells David to do as he sees fit, apparently his own reaction before he receives a prophetic message. These words play on the two different ways of using the word ‘house’ – a combination which fortunately we still have in English. The prediction is that not only will God be with David, he will continue his favour to David’s descendants. The Davidic line, however, degenerated badly with apostate and evil rulers, gradually there grew up an expectation that in the future a new and perfect ‘Son of David’ would take his ‘throne’ – the sign of rightful authority. Mostly this was thought of a new, ideal earthly kingdom, and much of Jesus’ teaching was to correct this to understand the different kind of ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ he brought.
Although David did not build a temple, his son Solomon built as magnificent one as he could afford. This was destroyed by Babylon conquerors. Before Jesus birth, King Herod built an even greater and more richly decorated Temple which in turn would be destroyed by the Romans – as Jesus predicted in the last days before his death.
Psalm 88/89:2-5, 27, 29
The kings following David recalled the promise, as we hear in this psalm of a later time. The falling away of later kings is lamented in parts of this psalm we do not read, for in Advent we concentrate on hope for the future.
These are the closing verses of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans written to them before he travelled to preach in the capital. He took the opportunity to lay out his theology of salvation through faith in Christ. The ending stands as both a blessing and a summary and serves well in Advent as our summary of what God did and is still doing in Jesus.
This scene is traditionally called ‘the Annunciation’ and we celebrate that in March, nine months before the birth of Jesus. We hear it now as our final preparation for the feast of his entry into our world. Luke has constructed this little drama carefully, drawing on various themes of the Old Testament, such as the promise to David we heard today. Further, he has designed it in a form called a ‘birth announcement’ used in the Old Testament, usually of a birth that has something unusual about it – like Sarah conceiving her son Isaac when she was past child-bearing age. He also has arranged it in his gospel as complimentary to the story of the predicted birth of John the Baptist in the first part of his gospel. In both cases, Gabriel announces the birth to one of the parents, and both are usual: Elizabeth is like Sarah old and no longer with hope of a child. Mary, though ‘betrothed’ is not yet married and a virgin. God’s plan for the both of the sons are predicted by Gabriel, but at each step of the two annunciations and births, Luke shows how Jesus is a ‘step up’ on John: unusual birth to an old woman but a miraculous and unheard of birth to a virgin. John will be a great prophet but Jesus will be called ‘Son of the Most High.’ John will come ‘in the spirit of Elijah’, but Jesus will take the throne promised to David but as an eternal reign. (If you find time to read the two stories together, the pattern with its variations and added songs of rejoicing that makes a good reflection for Advent.)
For both Luke and Matthew, it is enough that Joseph who will be Jesus’ earthly (adopted) father is in the line of David. This satisfies the legal requirement of that time for inheritance.
From the Latin word used to translate the angel’s greeting, ‘Ave Maria’ we have our familiar Catholic prayer to Mary, in older English, ‘Hail Mary.’ ‘Full of grace’ is more accurately from the Greek ‘most highly favoured’, as in our reading. The next set of lines of our prayer come from the greeting of Elizabeth when Mary goes to visit her after hearing of her pregnancy: ‘blessed are you among women.’ Having slightly differing translations does not mean we have to ‘choose’ – both give us a meditation on the woman chosen to bear our Saviour who now takes the role of a mother in our lives as we take the role of brothers and sisters of Jesus.