I like to look at the readings of the daily Mass for some sort of “word” for the day. When I checked out today’s gospel what I saw was a bunch of the dreaded “begats,” forty-two of them in all. [Actually, the New American Bible uses “became the father of …” but you get the idea.]
The point is that this is when, in the Advent season, that we stop thinking about the 4000 year wait of the Jewish people and turn to getting ready for the fulfillment of the promise that they were waiting for. The gospel for today is from is from the beginning of Matthew’s gospel setting forth the genealogy of Jesus on Joseph’s side, and tomorrow’s gospel continues reading the same chapter telling the story of the conception of Jesus from Joseph’s point of view. You remember – his reassurance from the angel.
[Luke’s gospel sets forth the genealogy from Mary’s side, as well as the Annunciation story from her point of view. Those readings are not included in the sequence of gospel readings that we are talking about.]
The daily gospel readings for Saturday, December 19, through Thursday, December 24, pick up the events of the Nativity story from Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist through his bris (circumcision) all as recorded by Luke. [Note that the gospels from Sunday and Monday are the same. I do not know why.] Here is the sequence of gospel for this octave before Christmas.
- The genealogy.
- The conception of Jesus from Joseph’s point of view.
- The announcement of the upcoming birth of John; his father’s skepticism and being struck mute.
- Mary visits Elizabeth; Elizabeth’s strange greeting; John leaps in the womb.
- [Same as 20.]
- Mary prays the “Magnificat” and stays with Elizabeth until she has to return home.
- The birth of John and his naming.
- Zechariah regains his speech and prays the “Benedictus.”
Looking at these readings in this way tends to highlight the contrasts between Mary, Joseph and Elizabeth, on the one hand, and Zechariah, on the other. All of the participants in these stories were receiving extraordinary news in extraordinary ways. Mary, Joseph and Elizabeth all accepted their roles in the redemption story with joy and faith. Zechariah had questions. While Mary, Joseph and Elizabeth were all simple people, Zechariah was a priest. Along with his wife, he was “righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.” He must have been schooled in the Law and the Prophets, and he had questions. God wanted to resolve his questions and gave him a sign. He struck him mute. Surely, that gave him time to think about his questions.
In the meantime, Mary, Joseph and Elizabeth rejoiced in faith and went about their daily lives. “Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste” to visit Elizabeth and help her through childbirth. Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” Elizabeth “went into seclusion for five months.”
It is a little funny to think about, isn’t it? One minute, angels are traveling around Israel making announcements to various folks, who immediately respond in one way or another – Elizabeth getting ready to give birth late in life, Mary rushing off to offer her assistance, Joseph is getting his little home ready for a new resident (and her child), Zechariah pondering all that is going on and his place in the midst of it. All the actors – both earthly and heavenly – are poised on the edge of something, something marvelous, but not all are fully aware of exactly what was going to happen. Anticipation. Excitement. Worry? Fear? We can think about it a little like an opera.
The angel speaks to Joseph and he goes off to take Mary into his home. Curtain
Who is the first to express his feelings? John, the unborn child leaping in the womb. Next, Elizabeth prophesying the enormous event that was about to happen. Who heard her? What did they understand? Did they think, “How crazy women become when they are pregnant?” Then, Mary, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The Magnificat, the great spontaneous prayer of praise, gratitude and acceptance. This is the prayer prayed by the Church and every person who every day sings, reads or recites the office of Vespers, or Evening prayer. This is the prayer that the Church uses through her liturgical practice to imitate the great love of Mary for her Father, Son and Spouse.
In the sequence of the gospel readings that we are talking about, this is the peak of a crescendo near the second act curtain. It is followed by soft slow tones of peace. Not much is going on, Elizabeth if nearing her term. Joseph and Mary are making preparations to head south to Bethlehem to follow the rule of Caesar. Curtain.
The new music begins to rise. John is born. Important, miraculous and promising both good and ill, the music expresses hope. Then, what is his name going to be? His father says John and regains his voice. He prays, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people.” The noble “Benedictus,” prayed each day like the “Magnificat” but not in the evening but rather in Morning Prayer. This is a great prayer of thanksgiving and praise. It represents the return of Zechariah to faith with all of Israel. A great aria that fills the hall. Curtain
At the end of morning Mass on the day before Christmas, Advent is over. The next thing that happens liturgically is Midnight Mass (whatever time it starts) and much of our concern during Advent will not be thought about for another 11 months. We never hear again of Elizabeth and Zechariah. John “grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel…,” about 30 years later. Joseph will appear in a couple of stories (the Presentation, the flight into Egypt, the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple) and then he will disappear.
We are now about to celebrate the unimaginable truth that God loved us so much that as God Jesus chose to become just like one of us. He will suffer and die, but that is a different story for a different day. For now we can reach back to Advent each day enough to pray “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel” with Zechariah each morning, and “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” with Mary each evening.
The Christmas season is almost upon us, and it will not last long. There will be parties, gifts, feasting, and all good things. May you enjoy all of it. But there will also be God’s blessings. May you receive and enjoy all of those as well.