Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Mass for December 20
December 20, 2016
Is 7:10-14, Ps 24, Lk 1:26-38
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today the O Antiphon on which the Church has us meditate in anticipation of Christ’s birth is “O clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel: qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris,” which is translated, “O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: come, and lead forth the captive who sits in the shadows from his house arrest (his home of prison).”
- Jesus is the Key of David who opens and locks the door to heaven. He was the descendent of David to whom the keys of the kingdom were eventually transmitted. In today’s first reading, we encounter King Ahaz who, if you remember the Gospel of Jesus’ genealogy from Wednesday, was the eighth generation grandson of King David. We’ll return to King Ahaz shortly, but his son, Hezekiah, was one of the most faithful kings in the Davidic line. He replaced the master of his household — Shebna, basically his prime minister, who had allowed the temple of God to become sullied — with Eliakim. God said to Shebna through Isaiah, “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family” (Is 22:19-23). Jesus received those keys according to his humanity. As the Archangel Gabriel said to Mary in today’s Gospel about the Son she would conceived in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit and bear, “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.” Jesus would identify himself as the bearer of that Davidic key in his message to the Church of Philadelphia in the Book of Revelation, where he identified himself as “the holy one, the true, who holds the key of David, who opens and no one shall close, who closes and no one shall open” (Rev 3:6).
- As we prepare for Christmas, we prepare to welcome Jesus as that key, the one who comes to lead those sitting in darkness from our house arrest. We recognize that Jesus has come into the world to open up the doors to our prison cells and lead us out of darkness into light. The key he holds is the Cross, which is what — through his passion, death and resurrection — freed us from sin and the death to which it leads and opened up for us a life of grace and the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem.
- But while Jesus has done his work of opening up our prisons, we must leave our “house arrest” behind. The doors opened but we must walk out that door. The great Greek philosopher Plato, 500 years before Christ, in his famous work The Republic gave an allegory (extended metaphor) of a cave, which he puts on the lips of Socrates in one of the most famous philosophical images ever made. Plato describes an underground cave which has an opening toward the light. In this cave there are living human beings chained from childhood in such a way that they face the inside wall of the cave and have never seen the light of the sun. Above and behind them — in other words, between the prisoners and the mouth of the cave — is a fire, and between them and the fire is a raised way and a low wall, like a screen. Along this raised way men pass carrying statues and figures of animals and other objects in such a way that the objects they carry appear over the top of the low wall or screen. The prisoners, facing the inside wall of the cave, cannot see one another nor the objects carried behind them, but they see the shadows of themselves and the shadows of the objects. Eventually one of the prisoners is freed and led up the cave toward the light. At first, the light blinds him and he wishes to return to looking at the wall and the shadows. But as he is led further up, he sees the ledge containing the fire and the people carrying objects that were casting the shadows on the wall. He is led out of the cave and beholds sunlight shining on the created world. Finally, he is moved to gaze on the sun. Plato used the analogy to describe the whole process of learning, which is an arduous ascent, whereby one sees at first the initial cause of the shadows in the pots and statues and fire, but then is led even beyond that into the real world that those looking at the shadows never see. Finally, the true adult, the fully-educated and -formed man, is able to behold the sun, the ultimate source of light, the ultimate source of life. By this allegory, Plato implies that many people remain imprisoned at the level of shadows, but they don’t know it. When the freed former prisoner returns after having seen the light of the Sun, and tries to tell them about all that he has seen, and the causes of the shadows, they mock him, they call him crazy, they say he’s the one living in the dream world, and eventually they kill him. This was Plato’s way of describing what happened that led to the death of Socrates, his teacher. It also describes very well what led to the death of Jesus. Jesus came to lead people from imprisonment in the shadows of the cave into the light, but many prefer to remain at the level of shadows. Jesus has opened the door but people want to stay in house arrest.
- We see the contrast between those living in the shadows and those living in the light in today’s readings. In the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah we encounter King Ahaz, who was King of Judah for 16 years about 720 years before Christ. Judah was under threat from the northern Kingdom of Israel under Pekah and the Syrians under Rezin. They wanted him to join in an alliance against the powerful Assyrian kingdom under Tiglath-Pileser III. Ahaz was just an 18 year old leader and he was afraid. He was planning to form an alliance with the Assyrians against the two other kings, something that would prove disastrous for Judah, but God sent Isaiah to him to guide him. The problem was that he didn’t want to follow Isaiah’s advice because he preferred to follow the advice of his political advisors and the false prophets who told him what he wanted to hear rather than what God was perhaps counter-intuitively advising through Isaiah. He was trapped in the shadows. Even when Isaiah came to tell him that the Lord would have them, that he would open the door out of the predicament and lead him and the Jews, Ahaz didn’t want to have anything to do with it. So the Lord told him through Isaiah, “Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!” When God had asked his ancestor Solomon — at the identical age of 18! — the same question, Solomon asked for a prudent heart to judge things according to God’s wisdom. Ahaz feigned piety, saying, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” The reason why he didn’t want a sign was because once the sign was given, it would, in a sense, bind him to the truth, bind him to something other than what he was already intending to do. How dark was his darkness! How bound was he in the imprisonment of the shadows! So God through Isaiah told him what sign he would give: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” The sign would be God-with-us, a sign that would be fulfilled in so many ways through God’s presence, including in the Babylonian exile to which Ahaz’s political moves would eventually lead, but most especially in Jesus would would literally be God-with-us. But Isaiah explained how wearisome it must be for God when God gives us all the help we need, when God frees us, to see us remain where we are. “Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God?” In Jesus’ coming, God has done so much so that we may live freely, but we have to take advantage of this liberation and leave the darkness and go into the light.
- The one who shows us how to do this is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was liberated “preveniently” in her Immaculate Conception by her Creator and Savior who would become in time her Son according to the flesh. She lived in the light from the first moment of her conception. And when the Archangel Gabriel came to her, she manifested how those who live in the light, who are full of grace, who are with the Lord who is with us, respond to God. She first asked a question about whether God was asking her to change what she had previously thought he had requested in order to fulfill his will. That’s what her query means, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” The only way that this question makes sense is if Mary had already totally consecrated herself as a virgin to God, because if she hadn’t, then she would have well known how she would conceive and bear a son: it would have been through conjugal relations with her betrothed husband, St. Joseph. She had already responded to God’s light in her previous consecration but she was humbly open to being led further in the light of God’s plan if that’s what God was asking of her. After being told that she would conceive Jesus — a name which means “God saves,” God liberates, God opens up the door of our prisons — miraculously by the power of the Holy Spirit, she luminously replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” She shows us very clearly how to respond to God, by placing ourselves at his service, by allowing our whole lives to develop in accordance with this word.
- She enfleshes the three virtues that we read about in today’s beautiful responsorial psalm. When asked, “Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord or who may stand in his holy place?,” the Psalm responds, “He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain.” To live in the light, to take advantage of the gift of freedom to leave the prison cell behind, involves three things: desires, intentions and deeds. We first need to desire not what is vain, fleeting, worthless, but to desire what lasts, what is truly important. We need to desire more than the shadows, but to desire the light! Second, our intentions must be pure. Third, our hands must be clean. We must not take bribes, we must not use our hands to steal, to abuse others, but use them for deeds of love and fold them in prayer. Mary desired what God desires. Her heart was pure, seeing God in ordinary circumstances, contemplative, treasuring all his gifts, pondering them within. And her deeds were those of love, placing herself as the Lord’s handmaid in his service, and eventually holding the Son of God in her hands and helping to raise him with maternal love. Many wants to lead us on the moral and spiritual exodus from the cave into the kingdom of God, into the eternal promised land that is both now and not yet.
- “Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!” If we had been given this opportunity as King Ahaz did, even if Mary with her sinless hands, clean heart and holy desires, had been given this possibility, none of us would have ever dreamed of asking God to send his own Son into our world, to take on our own nature, to be born for us, to be God-with-us, to set us free by suffering, and to leave himself as our food under the appearance of bread and wine until the end of time. But what we never would have dreamed God himself has done! Today let us prepare to receive the Key of David and the Scepter of the House of Israel within us and let us ask him for all the graces he knows we need to become, like Mary, his servants, letting our lives develop according to his word; to have sinless hands, pure hearts and holy deeds; to leave the darkness of our house arrest behind and move forward into the light; and to take advantage, in the days that remain in Advent, of the power of the keys in the Sacrament of Confession, whereby Jesus sets us free and makes all of this possible!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 is 7:10-14
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary men,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.
Responsorial Psalm ps 24:1-2, 3-4ab, 5-6
The LORD’s are the earth and its fullness;
the world and those who dwell in it.
For he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory.
Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?
or who may stand in his holy place?
He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,
who desires not what is vain.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory.
He shall receive a blessing from the LORD,
a reward from God his savior.
Such is the race that seeks for him,
that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel lk 1:26-38
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.