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Fourth Sunday of Advent — December 21, 2014

adventcandles4Today we celebrate the fourth and final week of Advent, our annual spiritual preparation for our celebration of Christmas. And, although last Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is traditionally referred to as “Gaudete” Sunday, or “Rejoice” Sunday, because it marks the mid-point in our Advent preparations for Christmas. I think that we might also refer to this Fourth Sunday as “Guadete” Sunday, or “Rejoice” Sunday, not only because Christmas is now another week closer, but because today’s Scripture readings, like last week’s Scripture readings, give us much cause for rejoicing.

All three Scriptures readings today invite us to rejoice in the wonderful ways our God continually surprises us in his divine plan for our salvation. This element of surprise in God’s plan for our salvation goes all the way back to the time of King David, in our first reading, taken from the Second Book of Samuel. It continued with the unexpected announcement that the angel Gabriel brought to Mary in this morning’s Gospel. And this element of surprise is reflected in the words of Saint Paul in our second reading, taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Let’s take another look at each of those readings to see how the Lord invites us to rejoice in the surprises that he has in store for us.

1) In our first reading this morning, the Lord seems to surprise both the prophet Nathan and King David with his response to David’s offer to build a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem. David had settled in and was comfortably established as King in Jerusalem, living in a royal palace made of cedar wood. But the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the tablet of the Ten Commandments, symbolizing God’s presence among the Chosen People, that precious Ark of the Covenant was still kept in a tent. So King David wanted to build a Temple, which would be a proper “house” for the God of Israel. At first, the prophet Nathan went along with David’s plan, until that night, when God surprised Nathan by telling him that He didn’t want David to build him a “house.” Instead, the Lord said, I will provide for my Chosen People a “house” that will last forever. Here, there is a subtle play on words: while David wants to build a “house” made of wood as a proper Temple for the Lord; the Lord promises to make David’s family into a royal “house,” a dynasty of which will last forever. Having a King and a royal “house” was something new and different for the Chosen People of Israel. So Nathan and David were completely surprised by the Lord’s response to David’s offer to build him a house: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.”

2) Now we are quite accustomed to hearing about King David, and about the “house” of David, and about the throne that shall stand firm forever. But in Mary’s time, when the Romans occupied Palestine, and Herod was the King of Israel, it did not look like David’s throne could stand firm forever against the power of the Roman Empire. So this morning’s Gospel takes us to that little town of Galilee called Nazareth, where the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is to be the mother of a child to whom the Lord God will give 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.” I don’t think that any of us could ever even imagine the kind of shock and surprise that Mary experienced when she first heard that message. Saint Luke tells us in today’s Gospel that Mary was greatly troubled when the angel Gabriel simply greeted her saying: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” After telling her, “Do not be afraid,” Gabriel went on to tell Mary the rest of the Lord’s message. Then Mary was not only greatly troubled, but also puzzled, unable to understand how all of this could be possible. Yet, with Gabriel’s promise that all of this would be accomplished by the Holy Spirit and by the power of the Most High overshadowing her, and with the final reminder that “nothing will be impossible for God,” Mary overcame all of her questions and fears, and said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

Because we have heard this Gospel passage so frequently, we might not be surprised by the extraordinarily unusual way in which God fulfilled the promise first made to King David in today’s first reading. Living there in Nazareth, Mary was about as far removed from the royal family of David as anyone could possibly be. Yet she was the one, chosen by God to be the mother of that child who would complete God’s plan for the salvation, not only of Israel, but of the whole world! There are lots of surprises here, and lots of reasons for us to rejoice on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Not the least of the surprises is that God’s plan for the salvation of the world required the humble cooperation of a young girl named Mary, who willingly said “Yes” when God asked her to be the mother of the savior.

3) What, then, is our response today to the surprises which the Lord had in store for King David in our first reading and for the Blessed Mother in our Gospel reading? With Saint Paul in today’s second reading, our response is to give thanks and glory to God through Jesus Christ forever. But as we re-read this part of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we should not forget that Saint Paul himself was also surprised by God’s plan for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ. As a good and faithful Jew, before his conversion, Paul was known as Saul. And as a good and faithful Jew, Saul felt that the followers of Jesus were being led astray, that they were falling away from the proper practice of the one true faith. So Saul did everything he could to stop the spread of Christianity, until the risen Lord appeared to him while Saul was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there. The Risen Lord blinded Saul, and asked him, Why are you persecuting me?’ That was when “Saul” became “Paul,” and when he began to understand the “mystery” which he refers to in our second reading today: “…the mystery kept secret for long ages, but now manifested through the prophetic writings and made known to all nations…”

If the first part of Advent was an invitation for us to identify with the Old Testament Prophets and the Chosen People of Israel who waited for centuries for the coming of their Savior, I think this last week of Advent is an invitation for us to identify with King David, with Mary, and with Saint Paul. Each of them was truly surprised by the way God invited them to be part of his divine plan for the world’s salvation. Each of them was willing to change their own plans in order to cooperate with God’s plans for them, and for the salvation of the world.

During this last week of Advent, and throughout the Christmas Season, let us be ready, willing, and able to be surprised. Not only that God became one of us in Jesus, in order to save us, but that God is still very much present and active in the world today. Let us try to surprise one another, not just with the perfect gift in the right color and correct size, but more importantly, let us surprise one another by really making an effort to reveal and recognize Christ’s presence in ourselves and in one another. That was evidently what finally made a believer out of Saint Paul, the Lord’s invitation to see Jesus’ own presence in his followers whom Saul was persecuting.

As we celebrate the Eucharist this weekend, let us thank the Lord Jesus for his real presence among us, not only in the bread and wine which will become the body of blood of Christ, but also in ourselves and in one another as together we receive the Body of Christ in Holy Communion. And let us realize that the Lord’s real presence with us in the Eucharist is the most important of all of the Christmas presents we will ever receive. May this mystery of the Lord’s real presence among us give us always cause for rejoicing, and may it never cease to surprise us!