As we come close to Christmas, the biblical texts become more closely related to the birth of Jesus. First a prophetic testimony that Matthew will quote for both the location of Jesus’ birth and the belief that Jesus is ‘God with us. The second reading also suggests the union of human body and divine nature of Christ. Luke brings Mary to our attention, at the point when she is bearing Jesus within her body, but before his birth in Bethlehem.
Micah is the last of the four prophets of the 8th century BC, who lived in times calling for God’s judgement. There was danger from without from Assyria, but he also saw dangers within. Micah is concerned ‘with social justice and with the wickedness of all leaders, political and spiritual.’ He sees that the poor and humble are exploited and the Covenant with God is ignored. In the middle of this short book, however, there are these words of hope chosen for today.
Bethlehem was the city of Jesse, and therefore also of his son David who became the King whose line would be eternally blessed. (These stories are told in the two books of Samuel.) Micah looks forward to this old prophecy about David coming true in a deeper way in a future ruler. Our reading says his origin is ‘of old’ but the words may also be translated ‘from everlasting’ – this is a vision of a truly ‘idealized king’. It is easy to see why Christians have seen that these words were fulfilled in Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, and who called himself ‘the Good Shepherd’. The reference to the mother of this king fits today’s gospel with its focus on Mary.
(I have used Leo Laberge, in the New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary for details on Micah.)
Psalm 79/80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
This psalm is a prayer for the restoration of Israel-Judah after destruction, and more sombre in tone than the reading from Micah. It picks us the same image of God as shepherd, and our last verses expect a chosen leader, who according to the Jerusalem Bible who may have been the king at that time (Zerubbabel), but for Christians is a message about Jesus. Other translations have ‘the son of man’ where the mass version repeats ‘the man you have given your strength.’ Son of Man’ was Jesus’ favourite way to speak of himself in the gospels and comes from a Semitic way of speaking which uses ‘son of’ to express an identity.
The reading begins with a quotation from Psalm 40/39 and applies this to Jesus in several ways. One is the absolute obedience that Jesus had to the will of his Father. The second is that the death of Jesus did away with all the sacrifices and holocausts of the old Law. These sacrifices were repeated over and over, but the writer of Hebrews stresses that Jesus’ sacrifice was ‘once for all’. The author has chosen a variant text in Greek, for the phrase he uses: ‘prepared a body for me’. In the usual translation this is ‘opened my ears’ – meaning God helped the Psalmist to understand. The choice of ‘body’ in Hebrews, however, suits perfectly the author’s theme of Jesus coming into the world.
The gospel reading this week is a short one, but it expects us to know the background Luke has set out earlier in his first chapter. In his careful arrangement of the beginning of his Gospel, he has two parallels between John the Baptist and Jesus. Each time there is what Joseph Fitzmyer in his commentary called a ‘step up’. John will come first, but Jesus and his ministry will be greater. In Luke there are two annunciation stories before the two babies are conceived. These will be followed by two birth stories. In between, we have today’s gospel which brings together the two mothers, both carrying their unborn sons. This works as a transition between the two announcements and two fulfilments.
Mary has been told by the Angel Gabriel that Elizabeth in old age has miraculously conceived a son. After the angel leaves her, she goes as soon as she can to visit her elderly cousin. When Elizabeth hears her greeting, she is ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and that gives her the prophetic insight to understand what is happening with Mary, and to recognize the unique status it means for her. In the opening of his Gospel, Luke gives us various titles or meanings for who Jesus is, and this account adds ‘the Lord.’ The baby John ‘leaping’ is a little mysterious; Gabriel told Zechariah that his child would be ‘filled from his mother’s womb with Holy Spirit’ and it is likely that Luke sees this as the moment in time when that happened. It also may be Luke’s way of showing that even the unborn child recognised somehow the higher status of Jesus, which John himself stressed in last week’s reading. (‘One greater than I is coming after me.’)
The text has two different Greek words which are both translated as ‘blessed’ in our reading. Fitzmyer distinguishes them by spelling the first one ‘blest among women’. My Greek dictionary says that the first word (‘blest’) Elizabeth uses means to call for praise or to ‘speak a blessing’. The second word (makarios) is that used in the ‘Beatitudes’ in Matthew, a word which in our time is often translated ‘happy’ rather than ‘blessed’. It speaks more of the joy of Mary as the one who believed. In Luke, the next section (which is not included today) is a hymn that Mary sings, in which she says, ‘all generations will call me blessed’, using that same Greek makarios. We recognize Mary as uniquely ‘happy’ to be the first to believe in Jesus as the Son of God.
There may be some irony in Elizabeth praising Mary for ‘believing in the promise made to her’, for her husband Zechariah had first doubted the words of angel promising him a son when his wife was past normal childbearing. The words of Elizabeth have been combined with the greeting to Mary by Gabriel (Luke 1:28) to give us the opening of our prayer ‘Hail Mary.’
Alternate Opening Prayer
Father, all-powerful God, your eternal Word took flesh on our earth when the Virgin Mary placed her life at the service of your plan. Lift our minds in watchful hope to hear the voice which announces his glory and open our minds to receive the Spirit who prepares us for his coming.