The readings for the final week of Advent focus on Jesus as the ‘Son of David’ – a title for the ‘Messiah’- a word from the Hebrew meaning the same as the more familiar Greek form ‘Christ’. The scriptures today show us both the past basis for our faith and how that is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.
2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16
The background to this story: 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, which has been translated as ‘tabernacle’, a word used in our churches for the place holding the Blessed Sacrament. (For details on the Ark see Exodus 25.) As some nomads still do today, the people had tents 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 was aware of the striking difference of his living in a palace at that time while God’s ‘dwelling place’ was still a wanderer’s tent.
When David decides to build a temple, Nathan the prophet first tells him to do as he sees fit, his own reaction before he receives a prophetic message. The prophecy uses word play on the two different ways of using the word ‘house’ – which fortunately also works 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, as time went on degenerated 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 for he intended a different kind of ‘Kingdom of God’, one only reached through his suffering.
Although David did not build a temple, his son Solomon did – as magnificent one as he could afford. (2 Kings chapters 6-8.) This was destroyed by Babylon conquerors. Before Jesus birth, King Herod built an even greater and more richly decorated Temple which existed in Jesus’ time. It too 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 of everlasting dynasty, as we hear in this psalm from 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 to conclude 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 on March 25, nine months before the birth of Jesus. We hear this gospel twice, now as our final preparation for the feast of Jesus’ entry into our world. Luke has constructed his accounts carefully, drawing on various themes of the Old Testament, such as the promise to David in the first reading. This is in a form called a ‘birth announcement’ – usually a prophecy – in the Old Testament, of a birth that has something unusual about it. The form is first seen when ‘messengers’ or angels from God promised that Sarah would bear a son to Abraham when she was past child-bearing age (Genesis 18:1-5). A similar story is of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel (1Samuel 1:9-28). Hannah’s song of praise (1 Samuel 2:10) is also similar to Mary’s ‘Magnificat’. Matthew makes a special point of another birth announcement text, Isaiah 7:14 – ‘the virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son and they will call his name Emmanuel.’
Luke has arranged the first two chapters of his gospel with two complimentary announcements and births: John the Baptist first, then Jesus. In both, Gabriel announces the special birth to an unexpected mother. Elizabeth was like Sarah, old beyond child-bearing. Mary, though ‘betrothed’, is not yet married and still a virgin. God’s plans for the both of the sons are predicted by Gabriel, but at each step of the two annunciations and the following births, Luke shows how Jesus is a ‘step up’ on John. So we have one unusual birth to an old woman but a more miraculous 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’ an early prophet, but Jesus will take the throne promised to David as an eternal reign. Reading both these two stories together, the pattern with its variations shows how skilfully Luke presents theology as stories and also in the songs he puts in at appropriate moments.
Jesus with the ‘Good News’ of his birth-life-passion-resurrection was something no one would have expected, and yet (as Rowan Williams points out) in another way everything that went before should have prepared us for the great events of God coming into our world and intimately into the heart of each Christian. Luke is especially gifted in tracing allusions in the Older Testament, and weaving them into his dramatic presentation of Jesus life.
From the Latin word used to translate the angel’s greeting, ‘Ave Maria’ we have our familiar Catholic prayer to Mary, in older English form as ‘Hail, Mary.’ ‘Full of grace’ is more accurately translated from the Greek in our reading as ‘most highly favoured’. 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.’ The three songs Luke records in these two chapters – the ‘Benedictus’ of Zachary, the ‘Magnificat’ of Mary and the angel’s ‘Gloria’ – all have been taken into our liturgies.