Preparing to Receive the Tender Mercy of God, December 24, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Mass for December 24
December 24, 2015
2 Sam 7:1-5.8-12.14.16, Ps 89, Lk 1:67-69

 

To listen to an audio recording of this homily — which is truncated because the batteries in the recorder ran out — please click here: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • During this extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, we’re preparing to celebrate Christmas differently than every other year. And today’s readings help us to get ready to respond to what Zechariah calls the “tender compassion of our God,” the mercy he promised to the Jews through so many covenants, the mercy that would dawn for Zechariah in Jesus in the womb in his own house, the mercy that his own son John the Baptist would announce, “salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” Let us enter into this mystery of God’s merciful action on this last day of Advent, as John the Baptist his Son, from his circumcision, finishes his job through his father of making straight the paths for us to embrace our Merciful Savior.
  • In today’s first reading, a millennium before the angels would sing “Hark!” in Bethlehem, King David tells the prophet Nathan that he is intending to build a temple, a fitting house for the Lord, asking Nathan to confirm that that would be pleasing to God. Nathan’s first reply was simply to have David go for it, that of course such a construction project would please God. But the Lord came to Nathan and told him to return to David saying that rather than have David build a house for the Lord, the Lord himself would mercifully establish a house for David, saying “I will 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.” One-thousand years later, God would make good on that promise. When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he said, “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.” The Lord had spent a millennium preparing to give us that gift! David intended to do something for God and God far outdid David’s intended generosity.
  • At the time of Christmas, those of us who remember that Jesus is the reason for the season, often make all types of good plans and resolutions about what we will give to God. We imitate the Shepherds in going with haste to the manger. We emulate the Magi in giving the Lord the best we have and falling down before him in prayerful homage. We model ourselves on Mary and Joseph in loving him. We echo the angels in announcing him. We strive to make loving crèche displays in our homes and convents and Churches as a sign of our loving expectation, receptivity and response in the temple we have become through baptism. But to all of this work, God says to us as he said to David, “Should you build me a house to dwell in?” God, in response builds us a house, builds us a dwelling place in him, a dwelling that will be secure forever. Christ has come in order to build that house so that where he is we may be with him (Jn 14:1-6). And the house he builds for us is even greater than the house he builds for David. Jesus would say 30 years later that John the Baptist was the greatest born of woman but the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. The Lord wants to build us something even greater than what he did for David. The Messiah and Son of God doesn’t descend from us according to the flesh, but by baptism he makes us spiritual sons not of an earthly King but of the King of Kings. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, what God has done, is doing and wants to do in us. The real meaning of Christmas is not what we do for or give to God and to others in his name, but it’s what God continually does for and gives to us.
  • This love of God should make us explode with unbelievable joy and gratitude! That’s what we see in today’s Responsorial Psalm and today’s Gospel. In the Psalm we prayed, “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord!,” and we say why: because he he has confirmed his fidelity, keeping the covenant he made and the oath he swore, establishing himself as our father, God, rock and Savior. Each of us, in some sense, should never cease singing Christmas hymns, every day of the year, for how God has kept his promise while at the same time far exceeding our expectations of the fulfillment of that promise! In today’s Gospel, we encounter Zechariah’s famous Benedictus, a hymn of praise that the Church has been singing at Morning Prayer ever since and will continue to sing until Christ returns. As you remember, he had been muted for nine months to help him to grow in faith, but while he couldn’t speak, he could hear, he could pray. For several months, the Blessed Virgin Mary had been in his and Elizabeth’s home, doubtless sharing at least some of the elements that God had done for her. Zechariah pondered with her how all of God’s long-awaited preparation and promises were coming to fulfillment in the one Mary was carrying in her womb, in whose mission his son John would be inextricably bound. When he finally could speak again, he didn’t thank God so much for his own son — his long-awaited son for whom he and Elizabeth had prayed for so many years — but for his Savior!
  • “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,” he said, “for he has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of his servant David.” Zechariah was giving the first public announcement that the Messiah had come to his people to liberate them in fulfillment of all God’s prophecies. Zechariah listed three other famous ones beyond his being born of David’s House. “Through his prophets he promised of old that (1) he would save us from our enemies, from the hands of all who hate us. (2) He promised to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant. (3) This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, to set us free from the hand of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” God’s promises, Zechariah was saying, stretched back even beyond David to Abraham, 1800 years earlier.
  • Then he turns briefly to his son’s role in the fulfillment of these prophecies before returning to the Savior. Speaking to his eight-day old circumcised boy named “God is gracious,” he says, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” The salvation the Messiah is bringing is not a political liberation but an eschatological and moral one, salvation from our sins, from the division and hurt they bring, from the death to which they lead.
  • He finishes by recapitulating the O Antiphon O Oriens that the Church has us ponder today. O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis. “O Rising Sun in the East, splendor of eternal light and sun of justice, come, illumine those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.” Zechariah describes how Jesus is the fulfillment of that plea: “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high (Oriens, Rising Star) shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death (illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis), and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Jesus had come into the world not only to save us through his mercy but to guide us to peace on earth for those of good will and to everlasting peace in heaven. Jesus is the Rising Sun and his light — his eternal “Light from Light” — shines in the midst of the greatest darkness and makes the darkest day of the year radiant. Even when we’re walking through the dark valley of the shadow of death, Jesus comes to bring us into the kingdom of light so that we may follow his footsteps into the peace with God which is the heart of his kingdom and from which the “glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests” we’ll hear at Midnight Mass tonight emanates.
  • As we prepare to celebrate Christmas tomorrow, we should be getting ready our own explosive hymn of praise to God. Advent has been a period of prayerful silence to help us to contemplate within God’s promises so that like Zechariah we can be filled with joy and thanksgiving at their fulfillment. This joy is encapsulated in the last* of the O Antiphons we need to consider throughout these days, the one that was “suppressed” by the Mass for the fourth Sunday of Advent, the most famous one of all:  O Emmanuel, rex et legisfer noster, espectatio gentium et salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster, “O God-with-us, our king and lawgiver, long-awaited one and Savior of the nations, come to save us, Lord, Our God.” Jesus is the long-awaited God-with-us promised through Isaiah. He is our King and not just our King, but our lawgiver, someone who cares enough about us that he tells us his expectations and trains us by his law of love to know and live his wisdom. He is the long-awaited hope of all those looking for salvation from sin, from misery, from hardship, from suffering and death. We turn to him who we identify as “Lord, Our God” and ask him to come and save us from ourselves and from all our enemies, including the principalities and powers that always seek to harm us. That is what Christ has done. God has heard these incessant cries. He’s responded and he’s coming.
  • The O Antiphons finish with a sign of hope. All the messianic titles they contain were arranged by the early monks in a particular order so that the first letter of each O Antiphon read backwards would give us a very important message. Emmanuel (God-with-us), Rex (King), Oriens (Rising Sun), Clavis (Key), Radix (Root), Adonai (Lord), Sapientia (Wisdom), Ero Cras: “I will be (there) tomorrow!” Yes he will! And that’s why we sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel!” “Come quickly, do not delay!”

* (As I’ve been mentioning, there is a lack of alignment among the O Antiphons between what is used as the Gospel verse and what is used for Magnificat antiphon during Vespers. Vespers preserves the original order of the seven O Antiphons: O Sapientia (Wisdom, Dec 17), O Adonai (Lord and leader of the house of Israel, Dec 18), O Radix Iesse (Root of Jesse, Dec 19), O Clavis David (O Key of David, Dec 20), O Oriens (O Rising Sun, Dec 21), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations, Dec 22), O Emmanuel (O God-with-us, Dec 23). There is no O Antiphon for Vespers on December 24, because it is first Vespers of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. In the Gospel verses, however, while the first four days are the same (Dec 17-20), the Mass liturgies change the order of the others: O Rex Gentium is not only said on Dec 22 but repeated on Dec 23, O Emmanuel is moved from Dec 23 to Dec 21, and O Oriens is moved from Dec 21 to Dec 24, since those O Antiphons better accord with the readings — especially the Gospel —  of those particular days at Mass. This year I retained the order found in the lectionary rather than in the breviary.  I write this explanation because, as far as I have been able to find through internet searches, there is no other explanation of the disparity between the O Antiphons at Mass and at Vespers.)

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 2 sm 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16

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.’”

Responsorial Psalm ps 89:2-3, 4-5, 27 and 29

R. (2) For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
The favors 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.
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
“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.”
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
“He shall say of me, ‘You are my father,
my God, the rock, my savior.’
Forever I will maintain my kindness toward him,
and my covenant with him stands firm.”
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.

Alleluia

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel lk 1:67-79

Zechariah his father, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
for he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hand of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Circumcision_and_Birth_of_John_the_Baptist_with_Annunciation_to_Zechariah,_by_Teramo_Piaggio,_1535,_view_2,_oil_on_wood_-_Museo_Diocesano_(Genoa)_-_DSC01539