Thus says the Lord: You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel. He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord, in the majestic name of the Lord, his God; and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.(P) The word of the Lord.
O shepherd of Israel, hearken, from your throne upon the cherubim, shine forth. Rouse your power, and come to save us. (R)
Once again, O Lord of hosts, look down from heaven, and see; take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted, the son of man whom you yourself made strong. (R)
May your help be with the man of your right hand, with the son of man whom you yourself made strong. Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name. (R)
Brothers and sisters: When Christ came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight. Then I said, "As is written of me in the scroll, behold, I come to do your will, O God." First he says, "Sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings, you neither desired nor delighted in." These are offered according to the law. Then he says, "Behold, I come to do your will." He takes away the first to establish the second. By this "will", we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.(P) The word of the Lord.
Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."(P) The Gospel of the Lord.
During this liturgical year, which began on the First Sunday of Advent, we study the gospel of Luke. And in the season of Advent, which is a period of four Sundays and weeks, the Church invites us to read and reflect on the two greatest world events, one that already occurred in the past, i.e., the first coming of Christ to the earth in His incarnation and, the other which is certain to happen in the future, i.e., Christ's Second Coming at the end of the age. The Bible contains many prophesies concerning both events.
On the First Sunday, we looked firstly at the origins and traditions of Advent and, secondly, at Jesus' prophesy on His own return to judge the world. Toward the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus had foretold of great destruction and trouble, including plagues, pestilence, cosmic chaos and catastrophes before the end of the age, and His return to earth as King in power and glory to rule for a thousand years. In the meantime, He wanted His followers to "keep awake and be on the watch", whilst at the same time "pray for the strength to escape the tribulations", Luke (21:25-28, 34-36).
On the Second Sunday, we read the passage that introduced John the Baptist as the forerunner of Christ and his preaching to the Jews in the Judean desert of their need to repent and prepare for the coming of the Messiah, Luke (3:1-6). And last Sunday, we heard how the Jews responded to the call of John the Baptist. Many people, namely, the Pharisees and Sadducees who were religious leaders of the Jewish people in John's day, rejected his preaching and turned their backs on him. However, those who had accepted his message and received baptism wanted to know what they must do to prove their repentance.
Since John was preparing the way for Christ, he told different groups of people what Christ expected of them. More specifically, he exhorted the common people to share their clothing, food and the other basic things with the needy; the tax collectors to stop siphoning off money by dishonesty, exploitation and overcharging; and the soldiers to end gaining money, favours etc. by intimidation or violence or blackmail, but rather be content with their wages.
Today, on the fourth and last Sunday before Christmas, the Church turns our attention to the events that preceded the birth of both, John and Jesus. Before we go into today's text, it is good to glance through the happenings so far. According to the gospel of Luke, John's parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were devout and observant Jews, and Zechariah was a Jewish priest. However, despite their piety, devotion, and temple service, they were childless. Imagine how difficult it might have been for these two God-fearing Jews to endure the pain and disgrace of childlessness. In those ancient times, barrenness was seen as a divine disfavour, a curse and a punishment, and a great deal of shame was attached to being childless, Leviticus (20:20-21); Jeremiah (22:30). Moreover, Old Testament Law explicitly states that those who are obedient to God's laws would receive the divine gift of the fertility of the womb, Deuteronomy (7:12-14).
After years of hoping to have children, and since Elizabeth was well past her childbearing age, the couple had resigned themselves to the fact that they would never have any children. But as the story goes, one day, while Zechariah was serving in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared and announced to him that Elizabeth was to bear him a son, who would be the forerunner of the promised Messiah; and they were to name him John, and he would be filled with the Holy Spirit and be dedicated to the Lord's service even before birth. But Zechariah could not believe Gabriel's words. For his unbelief, Luke writes that Zechariah was rendered speechless, until John was to be born. Eventually, when Elizabeth realized that she was pregnant, she praised God for "showing His favour and taking away her disgrace among the people", and after the birth and naming of John, Zechariah was able to speak again, Luke (1:1-25).
In the meantime, the angel Gabriel appeared to an unmarried and virgin girl named Mary in Nazareth, and declared to her that she would conceive and give birth to a son, and that he would be called Jesus, which means "saves". The angel further told her that Jesus would be very great and would be called the Son of the Most-High. Obviously, Mary was disturbed by the astonishing news; yet, she obediently accepted it. Also, as a sign, the angel told her that her aged cousin Elizabeth had also miraculously conceived a son, for nothing is impossible with God.
Today's gospel continues from there. Having learned from the angel of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Mary hurried to visit her in the hill country of Judea which is traditionally identified as Ein Karem. This is a beautiful tranquil village in the west of Jerusalem, and it is about 90 miles from Nazareth. The gospel does not mention whether Mary had walked, or ridden a donkey, or anyone had accompanied her. But what we do know is that she would have travelled along uneven, rough or hilly terrains of Samaria. In Mary's day, a person travelling by foot could cover about 20 miles per day. If she had walked, it would have taken her four to five days at the very least.
In today's gospel, Luke describes the encounter between these two expectant mothers. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, she was moved by the Holy Spirit to greet Mary, with full recognition of the roles that they and their unborn children would play in God's plan for salvation. She proclaimed Mary and the child in her womb as "blessed", and humbly acknowledged the visit from the mother of the expected Messiah. Moreover, she recognized the different feeling and characterized the baby as leaping for joy at Mary's words. She further said that Mary would be blessed for believing God's words. If we were to continue to read the verses that follow today's gospel, we would hear Mary responding to Elizabeth's greeting with her own song of praise, the Magnificat - "My soul glorifies the Lord".
What is the message for us?
God Bless You!