Spiritual Sterility and Fruitfulness, December 19, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Mass for December 19
December 19, 2013
Jdg 13:2-7.24-25, Ps 71, Lk 1:5-25

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  •  The O Antiphon that the Church has us ponder in the Gospel Verse and at the Vespers Magnificat today is O radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare, “O root of Jesse, who stand as a sign for the people about whom kings stay silent and before whom all the nations pray: come to free us, do not delay. These sacred fourth-century words are given to us  to help us to assimilate how God wants us to be preparing today to receive Jesus at Christmas and to be hearing the word of revelation that God gives.
  • Most of today’s O Antiphon comes from two parts of the famous passage from the Book of Isaiah that we heard back on Tuesday of the first week of Advent and heard again on the Second Sunday of Advent: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out for his dwelling shall be glorious” (Is 11:1,10). The other part comes from the passage about the Suffering Servant later, when Isaiah, speaking about what he would suffer for us, prophesies, “Even as many were amazed at him — so marred was his look beyond that of man, and his appearance beyond that of mortals —  So shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless; For those who have not been told shall see, those who have not heard shall ponder it” (Is 52:14-15).
  • This passage reveals to us the shocking surprise of the rise of the shoot from Jesse’s stump. From a stump we don’t expect much growth, but we see that the shoot would eventually reach across the globe and into eternity. Isaiah was referring not merely to King David but to King David’s descendant Jesus. He was set up as a sign to the nations of the presence of God. Before him kings stayed silent, as we see with the three kings at his birth, blown away by his humility, resting not in silk garments in a palace but wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. We see it before King Herod on Good Friday. We see it still as the kings and leaders or the earth look at Jesus on the Cross. God’s love, his willingness to become so small and humble, his willingness to suffer and die to save us, ought to make us speechless with amazement. Likewise before him all the nations come to pray, as we saw once again in the coming of the Magi, in the Centurion, Syro-Phoenician woman, the Greeks and so many others during his lifetime, and still today. His dwelling turned out out to be even more glorious than the Temple in Jerusalem in all its splendor: his very body became the refulgence of the glory of God.
  • The O Antiphon is a prism with which to see so much more in today’s readings. What unites the first reading and the Gospel is that we have two sterile women. In something as wondrous as a shoot sprouting from a stump that didn’t seem capable of generating a whole forest that would never be cut down,we see two women whose wombs were barren who after so much prayer and longing finally conceived a son. So often when young couples easily conceive children they can be tempted to think it’s just a biological act. When someone needs to wait for years to conceive, it’s much more easily recognizable that every child is a gift from God and every child is consecrated by the Lord from the very womb for an important mission in his service.
  • In the first reading, we have the wife of Manoah (who unfortunately is never named!) who hadn’t been able to conceive. The angel appears to her doubtless as a response to her prayer and says, “Though you are barren and have had no children, yet you will conceive and bear a son … who will begin the deliverance of Israel from the power of the Philistines … [and who] shall be consecrated to God from the womb until the day of his death.” Her long wait, her many prayers, eventually led to her conceiving the great judge Samson.
  • In the Gospel we see an even greater miracle. Elizabeth and Zechariah were sterile and were both late in years. Elizabeth was almost certainly post-menopausal. Zechariah was a priest of the priestly division of Abijah whose turn it was to serve in the temple. The way the cultic priesthood worked at the temple of Jerusalem is that there were about 20,000 male descendants of Aaron, all of whom were automatically priests. They were divided into 24 divisions and they would rotate ministry at the temple, serving twice a year for a week. In every division, there were between 800-900 priests assigned. The day’s duties — offering the morning and evening sacrifices of a one year old unblemished male lamb together with flower, oil and wine, as well as offering the incense at the altar while those two sacrifices were taking place — were assigned each day by lottery. One could go an entire lifetime of service without one’s name every being drawn. When one’s name was selected, however, it was one of the happiest days in the priest’s life. Doubtless as Zechariah was chosen to offer the incense for one of the two sacrifices, he approached the altar with a prayer that he had been carrying within him his entire life. We wouldn’t be surprised if Elizabeth, before he would begin each week’s service, would have reminded him every time, “If you’re chosen, don’t forget God to hear our prayers and give us a child to remove the shame of my sterility.” So during the time he was offering the incense, the angel of the Lord appeared to him and told him, “Your request has been heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you must call him John. … Many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him … to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” Just as God had made a stump sprout, just as he would make rocks give streams of water, turn deserts into oases of life and even raise the Dead Sea to life (Ez 47), so he would turn sterility into fertility.
  • The Lord wants to work a similar miracle in us and every Advent we prepare for it. He wants to raise to life whatever it in us is barren so that it gives forth life with him. Many times we’re spiritually sterile, we bear no fruit. We labor for months, years and even more to grow in prayer and it seems like we have nothing to show for it. We try to pass on the faith to children and grandchildren or to parishioners and friends, and we end up feeling like barren fig trees. Today Jesus wants to give us hope. The reason why he often waits to grant something intrinsically good for which we desire so ardently is to increase that desire and to make us always conscious of the gift God gives that most of us would take for granted if we received things too easily. The long advent for the fulfillment of those promises are meant to increase, like the candles on an advent wreath increase each week during Advent, our prayer, our hope and — after the prayer is granted — our gratitude.
  • But theres another important lesson we learn from today’s readings. In order for that miracle to occur we not only need to ask for it in faith but receive it with faith. That’s what Zechariah didn’t do. He asked the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” Even though he and his wife had prayed for decades, even though an angel had appeared to him to announce the answer to his longings, he wanted verification. He really didn’t want to accept it without another sign. His question is totally different from the question of Mary that we will hear tomorrow in the Gospel. After the same Archangel Gabriel appeared to her, she asked, “How will this be, for I will not know man.” That wasn’t at all a question of doubt, but of modality. It clearly implies she had made a vow of consecrated virginity to the Lord — otherwise, why would she be asking how she would conceive a child, since she would well have known how children are conceived! — and therefore essentially was asking, “How will I become a mother? Does the Lord intend for me to break my vow of virginity in order to conceive?” That’s when the Angel talked about how the Holy Spirit would overshadow her so that she would become the only virginal mother in the history of the world. Zechariah’s question was different. He knew how Elizabeth would conceive a child if she were to become a mom. He just didn’t really want to believe and accept that she would become a mom through him now that she was a senior citizen. For us to bear fruit, we need to trust in the Lord’s promises. Questions are fine especially when it seems that God is asking us something that seems to go against what he’s indicated to us up until then, but as Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman once said, ten thousand questions do not constitute a single doubt.
  • But what if we regularly doubt? How can we overcome our temptations not to believe that all that God has promised will take place? That’s the third lesson from today’s readings. It’s found in the medicinal penance the Archangel gave Zechariah. At first it might seem very strange as a response to Zechariah’s doubt. We could imagine that Gabriel would have instead negated or delayed the promise. Instead he said, “But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.” Why would his being struck mute be a proper punishment? The answer is because it would force him to pray, force him to become good soil of faith for the Lord to respond to the Lord’s gifts. St. Augustine says that he was struck mute for the entirety when his son, John the Baptist, would be silent in the womb of Elizabeth. As soon as he was born and could start to cry out, Zechariah’s tongue would be loosened so that he, too, could cry out about the marvel the Lord had done for him when he would name is son John, which means God-is-gracious. But I’ve always said that the reason is to help him develop a contemplative heart like Mary, who treasured within her heart what the Angel and said. She believed because she was one who regularly received the Lord’s gifts in the silent dialogue of prayer. Zechariah needed to become more like Mary.
  • That’s a very important lesson for us every Advent. The way for us to go from sterility to fertility is by faithfully receiving all God’s word on good soil, which will enable us to bear not just a son or a little fruit, but 30, 60 and 100 fold. We’re supposed to be tremendously fertile! But we have to make time for silence, to ponder within our hearts and treasure all that God is saying and doing in our lives, in others’ lives, in the world. If we’re too busy, we’ll often be prone to doubt like Zechariah. If we’re running around “hustle, bustle, push and muscle, rushing to and fro” (A Christmas Carol), we’ll never be able to respond with faith and bear the type of fruit that God wants to give us.
  • Today we come up to the Lord’s temple. We don’t have the privilege maybe once in a lifetime if we’re lucky to enter into God’s presence, but we have the opportunity every day. We don’t have make this chapel smoke with incense rising up to God because we come with hearts lifted up the Lord with the sweet-smelling fragrance of faith. It’s here that the Lord wants to do a greater miracle in us than in the wife of Manoah and in Elizabeth’s womb. He wants us to bear something and Someone far greater than Samson and John the Baptist, but to receive within us the same Jesus whom Mary conceived, let him grow so much that we become pregnant with the presence of God-with-us within us, and bear him, his love, his life, his joy to the world.
  • O root of Jesse, about to come down on this altar, the sign that stands before the people of the depth of God’s love, please make us silent like kings, please help us to pray like all the nations, so that we, freed by you, may go without delay to announce that same liberation to all we know!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
JGS 13:2-7, 24-25A

There was a certain man from Zorah, of the clan of the Danites,
whose name was Manoah.
His wife was barren and had borne no children.
An angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her,
“Though you are barren and have had no children,
yet you will conceive and bear a son.
Now, then, be careful to take no wine or strong drink
and to eat nothing unclean.
As for the son you will conceive and bear,
no razor shall touch his head,
for this boy is to be consecrated to God from the womb.
It is he who will begin the deliverance of Israel
from the power of the Philistines.”The woman went and told her husband,
“A man of God came to me;
he had the appearance of an angel of God, terrible indeed.
I did not ask him where he came from, nor did he tell me his name.
But he said to me,
‘You will be with child and will bear a son.
So take neither wine nor strong drink, and eat nothing unclean.
For the boy shall be consecrated to God from the womb,
until the day of his death.’”

The woman bore a son and named him Samson.
The boy grew up and the LORD blessed him;
the Spirit of the LORD stirred him.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 71:3-4A, 5-6AB, 16-17

R. (see 8) My mouth shall be filled with your praise, and I will sing your glory!
Be my rock of refuge,
a stronghold to give me safety,
for you are my rock and my fortress.
O my God, rescue me from the hand of the wicked.
R. My mouth shall be filled with your praise, and I will sing your glory!
For you are my hope, O LORD;
my trust, O God, from my youth.
On you I depend from birth;
from my mother’s womb you are my strength.
R. My mouth shall be filled with your praise, and I will sing your glory!
I will treat of the mighty works of the LORD;
O God, I will tell of your singular justice.
O God, you have taught me from my youth,
and till the present I proclaim your wondrous deeds.
R. My mouth shall be filled with your praise, and I will sing your glory!

LK 1:5-25

In the days of Herod, King of Judea,
there was a priest named Zechariah
of the priestly division of Abijah;
his wife was from the daughters of Aaron,
and her name was Elizabeth.
Both were righteous in the eyes of God,
observing all the commandments
and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.
But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren
and both were advanced in years.Once when he was serving as priest
in his division’s turn before God,
according to the practice of the priestly service,
he was chosen by lot
to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense.
Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside
at the hour of the incense offering,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him,
standing at the right of the altar of incense.
Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him.

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,
because your prayer has been heard.
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,
and you shall name him John.
And you will have joy and gladness,
and many will rejoice at his birth,
for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
He will drink neither wine nor strong drink.
He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb,
and he will turn many of the children of Israel
to the Lord their God.
He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah
to turn the hearts of fathers toward children
and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous,
to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”

Then Zechariah said to the angel,
“How shall I know this?
For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
And the angel said to him in reply,
“I am Gabriel, who stand before God.
I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.
But now you will be speechless and unable to talk
until the day these things take place,
because you did not believe my words,
which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah
and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary.
But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them,
and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary.
He was gesturing to them but remained mute.

Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home.

After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived,
and she went into seclusion for five months, saying,
“So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit
to take away my disgrace before others.”