|Reflection on Advent IV|
|Written by Michael Fones|
|Saturday, 20 December 2008 13:58|
Reading I: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
Responsorial Psalm: 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29
Reading II: Romans 16:25-27
Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
Mary is called the “New Eve,” which means in Christian theology Eve is seen as a “type” of the woman to come – sort of a point of comparison and contrast to the young girl we meet in the Gospel today. So that suggests that to understand this Gospel passage more readily, we should look consider Eve, “the mother of all the living.” In Genesis 3 we have one of my favorite accounts in the Bible; the story of the Fall. Every time I reflect on it, it seems, there’s some new insight to be had into our human condition. Consider, for example, the passage we know as “the temptation.”
Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the LORD God had made. The serpent asked the woman,
Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" The woman answered the serpent: "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, 'You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.'"In the garden, Adam and Eve are stewards of an earthly, harmonious paradise. They even walk with God in the breezy time of the day. Into this natural perfection comes the Serpent, the cunning one, who asks the woman, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” There’s no temptation in that statement, but it sets the stage for the temptation. That question is absolutely necessary for the temptation to have its effect. The Tempter is mis-named. He should be called the Limiter, the spoil-sport, the whiner. Because we cannot be tempted unless we are aware of some limit – some absence or gap in our life.
Eve is reminded that there is one tree in the garden from which she cannot eat. Once that has happened, the temptation can be effective – “The moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.” This is a Semitic way of saying, “you’ll know everything.” 'You won’t need to rely on God’s knowledge. You can be free.'
The first Eve encountered the cunning serpent in the garden; Gabriel meets the second Eve in the confines of her father’s house. This encounter with the angel Gabriel is Mary’s moment of decision. A new offer is given to a new Eve. Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid,” but gives her reason to fear. Will she accept an unexpected – and quite unique – pregnancy? This was an issue of life and death. As a virgin betrothed to Joseph, how would she explain this to him? He could rightfully expose her to the law and have her stoned to death as an adulteress.
Mary also had to trust a preposterous claim Gabriel made: this son of hers “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.” Pretty lofty claims, considering Mary was young, female, poor, and living in a land conquered by the world’s most efficient and brutal army, with no end in sight to their servitude. Our fate, and the fate of the whole world – all who’ve ever lived – rested upon Mary’s free response to that invitation. Like Eve, she had the choice – to focus on the limitations to her existence, or to trust God.
She chose to trust – and not just this time, but when she has to give birth in a stable, when old Simeon claims her heart will be pierced by a sword, when her beloved son, the fruit of her womb, dies on the cross – and with him, seemingly, Gabriel’s promise, but not Simeon’s. She responds, “as you wish,” and although it’s not included in today’s Gospel, it’s important to note what Mary does after Gabriel leaves; 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. Faith in God gets us moving; listening to the Limiter paralyzes us (it's interesting to note that Dante imagined Satan in the depths of Hell immobilized within a frozen lake). He focuses our attention on what we don’t have and what we think we can’t do. He takes our attention away from what God has done, and what God might do through us.
The reading from 2 Samuel illustrates our forgetfulness. We’re told King David is enjoying peace in his palace, the Lord having “given him rest from his enemies on every side.” Comparing his palace to God’s tent, he proposes to build a suitable house in which God may dwell. And through the prophet Nathan, God tells David he has things backwards.
“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.?…I will give you rest from all your enemies.?…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.God might have added, “If it weren’t for me, you’d still be sitting in a pasture watching sheep!”
For all our opportunity and power we Americans have, we often act as though we're powerless – at least I do. How often have I seen evidence of a problem – like homeless folks sleeping in a shop doorway, or statistics about high school dropouts, or even ice-covered sidewalks, and said, “there’s nothing I can do about that.” How often have you wanted to do something to address a problem but thought, “what can one person do?” How often have we looked at people like Mother Teresa, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dorothy Day, or Abraham Lincoln - or Abraham, for that matter - and thought, “Wow, there was a remarkable human being.”
The saints, and great, good people from the past started out like you and me. But they didn’t listen to the temptation; they weren’t paralyzed by their perceived limitations. Nor did they place limits on what God can do. They trusted God, stepped out in faith, made themselves available to Him – and simply kept taking one step at a time – even though they didn’t know exactly where He was taking them. It wasn’t that they were so great, it’s that they prove how great God is.
We, who have been baptized into Christ Jesus, who have received the Holy Spirit in baptism and Confirmation, have no reason to downplay what God can do, with our assent and cooperation. If God, through the Holy Spirit can make simple bread and wine become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus, his Son, what might He do with flesh and blood?
In a few days we’ll celebrate the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity: God-made-flesh. St. Paul knew the incarnation didn’t end with Jesus’ ascension, but that we are the body of Christ. Just as the power of the Holy Spirit flowed through his humanity as he cured the sick, expelled demons, taught the crowds, and had compassion for sinners, so, too, that power continues to flow through those who will be his instruments. Every step of the way the Tempter – or, better, Limiter - is there whispering to us, “What can you do? You’re just one person.” And of course, the Tempter’s right – but he withholds part of the truth. Jesus told his disciples, “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.” He also promised told us, “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5b
In the power of the Holy Spirit and grace, we can take the next step in spite of our fear, in spite of our doubts, in spite of what everyone else may be doing. And when that happens, look out! You never know where God will take you – or what great things He’ll do with you.
With God, all things are possible. Just ask Mary.