FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT (B)
When King David was settled in his palace, and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies on every side, he said to Nathan the prophet, "Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent!" Nathan answered the king, "Go, do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you." But that night the Lord spoke to Nathan and said: "Go, tell my servant David, 'Thus says the Lord: Should you build me a house to dwell in?' "'It was I who took you from the pasture and from the care of the flock to be commander of my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you went, and I have destroyed all your enemies before you. And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth. I will fix a place for my people Israel; I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place without further disturbance. Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old, since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel. I will give you rest from all your enemies. The LORD also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you. And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever."
1) The promises of the Lord I will sing forever; through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.
For you have said, "My kindness is established forever"; in heaven you have confirmed your faithfulness. (Refrain:)
2) "I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant:
Forever will I confirm your posterity and establish your throne for all generations." (Refrain:)
Brothers and sisters: To Him who can strengthen you, according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested through the prophetic writings and, according to the command of the eternal God, made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith, to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
(Copyright 1970, 1986, 1992, 1998, 2001 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc. Washington D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Copyright 1970, 1997, 1998 Contraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc. Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
The English translation of some Psalm responses, some Alleluia and Gospel verses and the Lenten Gospel Acclamations, some Summaries, and the Titles and Conclusion of the Readings, from the Lectionary for Mass copyright 1968, 1981, 1997, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc., Washington D.C. All rights reserved.
The poetic English translation of the sequences of the Roman Missal are taken from the Roman Missal approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States, copyright 1964 by the National Catholic Welfare Conference, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission of ICEL. This resource is available at a discount through the Homiletic Resource Center.)
- A minister went to visit a newly-married couple who had just moved into town to invite them to come to his church. When he knocked on the front door, a woman's voice from inside called out, "Is that you, angel?" The minister replied, "No, but I'm from the same department." (1)
In today's gospel passage, we heard those familiar words about the angel Gabriel who "was sent from God to a town of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph...The virgin's name was Mary." But who are these beings called "angels"? The word "angel" comes from the Greek word "angelos" which means "a bearer of good news"or "messenger". In essence, an angel is one who is sent by another person for a certain purpose. But God's messengers don't have to be of the heavenly variety.
In last week's gospel passage, we heard these words: "There was a man named John who was sent by God, who came as a witness to testify to the light". In last week's first reading from Isaiah we heard this: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly." Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God constantly sent prophets to speak his message to the Israelites. Even in today's first reading, God speaks to Nathan the prophet and sends him to relay his message to David.
So it is that humans, as well as angels, can "be sent by God" for a certain purpose. But what about these angels? What do we know about them? Well, as we already have seen in today's gospel, they convey messages. But angels do much more than that. John Calvin had this to say about angels:
- Angels are the dispensers and administrators of the divine good will towards us; they regard our safety, undertake our defense, direct our ways, and exercise a constant solicitude that no evil befall us.
Thus do we come to believe in what are called "guardian angels". But there is more. Sometimes angels can appear remarkably like ourselves. One author puts it this way:
- "The stories in the Bible that speak of angels relate the experiences of men and women to whom God drew so very near in moments of great personal crisis or danger that they sensed in the words of a human being the work of a messenger of God, and in the help of a human hand they felt the helping hand of God." (2)
And such experiences don't have to be limited to persons in the Bible. Sometimes even us modern day persons have experiences like this. Perhaps like the woman in this story did.
- Gretchen and her husband, Fred, had had a long and happy marriage, but Fred had recently died. And although Gretchen had a son and four grandchildren who loved her very much, one does not easily recover from such a momentous loss. During the first few months, she had been numb with grief and unable to cry. But she had progressed beyond the initial shock stage, and now, it seemed, crying was all she did. "I was beginning to dread meeting anyone," she recalls, "because I was so afraid that I would burst into tears in the middle of an ordinary conversation." People had been very kind, but she didn't want anyone pitying her and she didn't want her sorrow to make others uncomfortable.
On this particular Sunday, Gretchen went to church by herself and selected an empty pew. She was relieved when she saw no familiar faces around her. At least if her anguish threatened to overwhelm her, she could slip out quietly. As she sat in the pew, she thought again of Fred, and desolation and grief swept in waves over her spirit. It was all she could do to keep from crying out. Would the mourning ever end, she wondered? In another moment, she would break down once again ....
But then suddenly, a small boy entered her pew and sat down next to her. She looked at him through her tears. He had light-brown hair, was neatly dressed in a little brown suit and appeared to be about six years old. And he was looking up at her in the most familiar way, smiling as if he knew her. It was peculiar. Children rarely attended church alone in this particular congregation, especially at such an early hour. Where could his family be? Even stranger was the fact that, although the youngster had picked up the church prayer book to read, he kept edging toward her. "He moved nearer and nearer," she said, "very casually. He would read, then look up, catch my eye and beam. His whole attitude made it clear that he had come to keep me company." What a darling child!
As the little boy snuggled close to her, something else began to happen. She felt her heart lighten. Somehow, although she hadn't believed such a thing would ever happen again she began to feel, yes, happy. It was only a fleeting emotion, like a brief little kiss, but she felt it. And she would be happy again. She knew it now without question. "A time to mourn and a time to dance...". she remembered. She was still very much in mourning but the love and sweetness in the little boy's face had given her a glimpse of a better time yet to come.
But who was this child? She looked down at him, and again he smiled at her in that intimate and penetrating manner. She must know him .... Why else would he be behaving this way? Of course. He was probably the son of a younger neighbor or friend who, aware of her loss and seeing her sitting alone, had sent her little boy up to share the pew. She would have to thank his parents for their thoughtfulness. She would watch where the child went after the service.
As the service ended, Gretchen and the boy left the pew and headed for the front door. There were people around, but not a huge crowd, and the child was right next to Gretchen. "What is your name?" she asked him. "Do I know your mother?" But instead of answering, he looked up at her for one last smile. And then, as Gretchen's eyes scanned the crowd to find someone searching for him, the child vanished. He was there and then simply wasn't. Gretchen didn't see him go, but when she glanced down, the spot next to her was vacant.
"I kept looking for him among the people until everyone had left," she said, "but I never saw him again, nor did I meet anyone who knew him or had sent him." But after that Sunday, Gretchen never felt quite so alone again. Gradually the truth seemed to come upon her--that an ordinary child, no matter how charming, would not have been able to lift her spirits in that mysterious and welcome way. Instead, the child must have been sent by someone who understood her suffering and was reaching out to comfort and heal her. Perhaps the boy was even sent by Fred. (3)
Based on all this, we can see that the line between angel and human can sometimes be very blurred indeed. Humans can act like angels and angels can look like humans. In the movie It's A Wonderful Life, an angel named Clarence saves George Bailey from committing suicide. When they are drying off in the bridge house, George asks Clarence who he is. Clarence responds that he is an angel who has been sent to save him. So it is, whether in the movies or on television shows like Touched By an Angel or in the experiences of people like Gretchen, angels do not necessarily have to look like they do in paintings with wings and bright, flowing clothes. They could look just like one of us.
Earlier, I had mentioned some of those whom God had sent in the past, including the prophets like Isaiah, John the Baptist and the Angel Gabriel. But of course, the most important of the ones whom God has sent was his own Son, Jesus Christ, who became one like us and took our flesh upon himself so that he could show us how to live. And if we live according to the principles that he has taught us, then we become his messengers to the world. Then we become his "angels".
Later on in It's a Wonderful Life, when Clarence explains to George that he is an angel, George asks him where his wings are. Clarence responds that he has to earn them, which is why he came back to earth to save George. And even later in the movie while they are at a bar, Clarence reminds George that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.
As we prepare to celebrate the day when Christ become one like us, we ought to refocus our lives so that we become better "messengers of the word of God". And we become true angels of the word of God by following the example which Christ himself has provided us, namely, through the love and forgiveness that we show to family members, relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Are you an angel sent by God into the lives of these men and women who interact with you on a daily basis or do you need more work on your wings? And if you do need more work on them, what better time to work on them than the present. Who knows, maybe someday someone might address you by asking "Is that you, angel??"And then one day further in the future, you might discover that the one for whom the bell rings is you!
1. Excerpted from 1000 Windows copyright 1997 by Robert C. Shannon, Standard Publishing Company, Cincinnati, OH. From the Bible Illustrator, Parsons Technology, Omaha, NE. (This resource, as well as many others, is available at a discount through the Homiletic Resource Center.)
2. from God's Angels Need No Wings, copyright 1979 by Claus Westerman. Fortress Press, Nashville, TN. Now out of print.
3. The Angel's Gift. Reprinted with the author's permission from Where Angels Walk: True Stories of Heavenly Visitors. Copyright 1992 by Joan Wester Anderson, Barton and Brett Publishers. Also included in Chicken Soup for the Couple's Soul, copyright 1999 by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Mark and Chris Donnelly, and Barbara De Angelis, pp. 326-328. Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL. (Both of these resources, as well as many others including a specially-priced package of the Chicken Soup books, are available at a discount through the Homiletic Resource Center.)
(Copyright 2014 by the Spirit through Deacon Sil Galvan, with a little help from the friends noted above. Permission is freely granted for use, in whole or in part, in oral presentations. For permission to use in writing, please contact the human intermediary at email@example.com.)
"Be it done unto me according to your word."
- In the December 1995 issue of Guideposts, Elizabeth King English tells of a very special Christmas that she once experienced. The year was 1949. She and her husband Herman owned an appliance store that sold just about everything a person could need in their home. They also sold a number of smaller things, such as toys.
That particular Christmas, they had practically sold out of their toys. Elizabeth had been uneasy about leaving the shop that Christmas Eve because one package on layaway had not been claimed yet. It might not have been anything important, but on the other hand, it might be some child's only gift. So Elizabeth and Herman stayed open as long as they could, but finally they decided to close the store and head home.
The next day, Christmas day, Elizabeth couldn't seem to get into the Christmas spirit. She cleaned a little around the house, but she felt restless. Strangely enough, she began to get the urge to go to the store that morning. Now Herman and Elizabeth never opened the store on Christmas, and the weather outside was a freezing mix of snow and sleet, but still Elizabeth felt drawn to go to the store.
After an hour, Elizabeth gave up fighting the urge and told Herman she was going down to the store. He wasn't very encouraging, but she had made up her mind. As Elizabeth slid along the snowy sidewalks to the store, her numb body mocked the urgent sensation she had about that day. But as she got to the store, she noticed two small boys, about six and nine years old, standing in front of the store. The little fellows got very excited when they saw Elizabeth coming. They were two little African-American children, and they were almost frozen. The younger one was crying, but he stopped when he saw Elizabeth. When Elizabeth scolded them for being out in the cold, they explained that they had been waiting for her.
The older boy explained to Elizabeth that his younger brother didn't get anything for Christmas, and so they had come there to get the little boy, Jimmy, some skates. He pulled out three dollars and placed them in front of her.
Sadly, Elizabeth explained to them that she had sold almost all the toys in the store, and they were out of skates. But as she glanced around the store, she noticed the lone package on the lay away shelf. She walked over and ripped off the wrapping to find that it contained a pair of child's skates! Jimmy reached for them and tried them on. They fit perfectly. When the boys tried to pay Elizabeth for the skates, she told them to use their money for a couple of pairs of good gloves instead. The boys grinned in amazement at this gift of free skates.
After the children were all warm, Elizabeth began to close up the shop again. She remarked to the boys that it was so lucky they had not frozen out there that morning. She asked, ". . . how did you boys know I would come?"
The older boy answered, "I knew you would come. I asked Jesus to send you."
Elizabeth went home to her family, but now she was in the Christmas spirit. (1)
The Spirit of God answered the prayers of the boys and encouraged Elizabeth to do something which she had hesitations about doing. Likewise, the Spirit worked through the angel Gabriel who was "sent from God' to help assuage Mary's fears and accomplish God's will.
It is our Lord's perfect act of obedience to the Father's will on the cross which redeems us from all of our acts of disobedience to the Father's will. However, this act would not have been possible if Mary had not first consented to do the Father's will as it was manifested to her by the angel Gabriel. Mary had no way of knowing what her "fiat" would require of her. But just from the gospels, we can see that her parenthood was tested on several occasions, as when Jesus was lost in the temple, or in the flight into Egypt. Of course the most difficult part of her obedience was watching her son die on the cross.
There are two songs whose verses have brought me a greater awareness of what Mary's "fiat" demanded of her, especially at Calvary. The first song is called I Sing a Maid, and the first verse paraphrases today's gospel reading.
- I sing a maid of tender years to whom an angel came
- and knelt as to a mighty queen and bowed his wings of flame.
- A nation's hope in her reply this maid of matchless grace
- For God's own Son became her child and she his resting place.
The second verse takes us right to Calvary with Mary.
- She watched him grow to manhood's strength to meet his destiny
- And when the danger of his truth brought him to Calvary
- She stood by him all powerless to ease his dying pain;
- And in the darkest hour of all she held her Son again. (1)
It is said that there is no death on earth worse than one that is suffered alone and in shame. There was probably no pain harder for her to bear than not being able to take her son in her arms and comfort him. Consider that when someone we love is in the hospital, we make special efforts to be with them to comfort them and possibly make their pain more tolerable. And certainly when someone is dying, that person's family will sacrifice everything to be with them at the moment of death to ease their passage into the next life. In the movie Steel Magnolias, Sally Field, who portrayed the mother of a dying daughter, refused to leave her daughter's side until all hope was gone for her recovery, lest her daughter wake up for two minutes and she wasn't there. In another scene in the hospital, she was pictured as simply holding her daughter's almost lifeless hand. Our Lady could do nothing more than to stand helplessly at a distance and watch her son accomplish what had been predestined by God since before the dawn of creation.
In another song to Mary which highlights her role as mother, there is this verse:
- Did she think of her joy in the babe and the boy, when for us as God's Son, he died.
- And she stumbled uphill with a broken will, the mother of the crucified. (2)
If the crucified suffered a shameful death, how shameful it was also for the mother of the crucified, and yet Mary was present throughout her son's agony on the cross. Then finally "in the darkest hour of all she held her son again", as depicted in the beautiful statue by Michaelangelo, the "Pieta".
As difficult as it was, Mary accepted God's will throughout her life. For our Lord also, drinking of the cup in the Garden of Gethsemane was not easy, when he sweated drops of blood at the very thought of what he was about to endure. It should be no wonder then that accepting God's will in our own lives can often be difficult. Again, in Steel Magnolias, there is the scene in the cemetary in which Sally Field vents her anger at the loss of her child at such a young age. Life wasn't fair. There may be times when we find the cup we have been given very bitter to drink. But our faith must be strong, as Mary's example has shown us.
As we prepare for Christmas, reflecting on our Lord's death on the cross is not something we normally do. However, we need to remember that before the babe was born in Bethlehem, before Mary consented to do God's will, yes even before a single atom of creation existed, God foresaw the cross. And, despite that awareness, the Word of God decided that creating us would be a good thing to do. How immense is God's love for us, how beyond measure it is.
I wanted to close with one last thought. In the gospels Jesus said that all who keep the will of the Father are his mother, his father, his sister and his brother. As we will hear at the later masses on Christmas day in the gospel reading from John, Jesus is the Word of God. Just as Mary gave flesh to the Word of God in Jesus, so we must take his Word into our hearts and give him flesh through our obedience to his Word, just as Mary was obedient to God's will. In our own lives we can do no better than respond to God's will with Mary's words: Be it done unto me according to your word.
1. "I Knew You Would Come", by Elizabeth King English. Guideposts, December 1995, pp. 33-35. (Quoted in Dynamic Preaching, Seven Worlds Corporation, 310 Simmons Road, Knoxville, Tn. 37922.) [Dynamic Preaching is modestly-priced subscription service ($45 by disk or in print) may be purchased through the Homiletic Resource Center or by clicking the link above. But I highly recommend it, if for nothing else than the great illustrations it contains every week!]
2. I Sing a Maid. Text by M. D. Ridge, tune: The Flight of the Earls (copyright 1987, GIA Publications, Chicago, Il. 60638).
3. Where Love Is Found. Text by Fred Pratt Green (copyright 1979 by Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, Il. 60188). Tune by Arnold Sherman (copyright 1987 by AMSI, Minneapolis, MN. 55408)
Lord Jesus, you are the Word made flesh through the obedience of your Mother Mary. Lord, have mercy.
Christ Jesus, you have called us to make you flesh in the world through our own obedience to your Word. Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you have called us to prepare a place in our hearts for your coming. Lord, have mercy.
Celebrant: Through her obedience to the will of God which was conveyed by the Angel Gabriel, Mary gave flesh to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Because he understands our needs as only a brother can and will intercede for us, we can confidently bring our prayers and petitions to the Father.
Deacon/Lector: Our response is "Lord, come and save us".
That the leaders of the Church will help us to prepare our hearts as a fitting place for the Lord, we pray to the Lord.
That the leaders of the nations of the world will do all in their power to bring peace on earth, we pray to the Lord.
That the sick, the terminally ill and those who find the holidays a difficult time because they are grieving the loss of a loved one, will come to know the peace that only the Christ Child can bring, we pray to the Lord.
That the members of our parish community will joyfully respond to the will of God with the faith and trust of Mary, we pray to the Lord.
That we will bear witness to our faith every day of our lives by all that we say and do, we pray to the Lord.
That all of our brothers and sisters will be treated as our equals in the sight of God regardless of their race, color, nationality or religion, we pray to the Lord.
That all of those who have contracted the Corona virus will be healed, that those who have died will be welcomed into the loving arms of their Savior who suffered for them and that their grieving families will find strength in their faith, we pray to the Lord.
That we will remember in a special way at this time of year all of our beloved faithful departed who now sing forever of the goodness of the Lord in their eternal dwelling place in heaven, we pray to the Lord.
For all of the intentions we hold in our hearts and which we now recall in silence. (Pause) For all of these intentions, we pray to the Lord.
Celebrant: Loving Father, your Son was given flesh because a young maiden allowed your will to be accomplished in her through the power of your Spirit. Grant us the grace and power of your Spirit to be able to follow her example and accept your will in our own lives. We ask this through Christ, your Son and our Lord. Amen.