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Fourth Sunday of Advent (B): The Promises of the Lord

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Mary and David trust in God's promises. Do we?

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Introduction

"I Promise”: What comes to mind when you hear this?
Maybe it’s because it’s 2020, and an election year, and almost Christmas, but I know that I get a bit cynical. I’m from Atlanta, and my hometown friends are currently inundated with Senate runoff ads filled with political promises.
But perhaps I’ve always been slow to trust in promises.
I’m the oldest of three sons, and I can think of when we were kids and my mom—a nurse who worked night shift—needed to sleep during the day and so needed us children home from school to be quiet. “Mom, I promise we’ll be quiet.”
Parents, how long do you suppose that promise was valid? 10 minutes? 5 minutes? With three boys, you’re lucky if it last 30 seconds. Of course, the fighting always involved my two younger brothers; I was never to blame. (Irony.)
Regardless of what we initially think about promises, our readings today are filled with them, so let’s see if we can be a little more trusting when it is God doing the promising.

Mary: Surprised by Gabriel, She Trusts God’s Promise

What was Mary doing in Nazareth when the angel came to her?
Given that she was immaculately conceived, what did she already understand about her life’s mission?
These questions are probably unanswerable, but Luke does tell us that Gabriel’s greeting (Χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη) perplexes her.
Yes, Mary is already fully faithful to God.
Yes, she already has some understanding.
But the text makes clear that she doesn’t fully understand, and this will continue as she ponders these things in her heart (see Luke 2:19 and Luke 2:51).
Nevertheless, she does three things:
She listens.
True disciples always begin with a listening posture.
Like a Little League baseball player who needs to be in “ready position” to field the ball when it’s hit to us, we must be in “ready position” when the Lord speaks to us. See Psalm 95:7-8.
She questions.
Good Christians are not fideists; we don’t just accept as true anything uttered piously!
A good disciple asks follow-up questions, seeking to better understand, but always from a position of faithful deference.
We must “discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2), and asking questions is part of that process.
She believes and puts herself at the Lord’s service.
Her response may be the most important words ever uttered: “Be it done to be according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
Catholics traditionally call this line her fiat, after the Latin translations of this line: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.
She calls herself the handmaid (δούλη) of the Lord. She gives the Lord unreserved permission to use her for his purposes: she uses the word “slave.” (See AYBD article on slavery.)
The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary Slavery (New Testament)

The quality of daily life of all those in slavery, but especially that of household slaves (and children), V 6, p 69 depended almost entirely upon the particular character and mood of the owner (or father; see Eph 6:4):Greco-Roman slave systems and legal frameworks gave slave owners much room to be cruel or compassionate.

For example, even as adults those in slavery were subject to corporal punishment, private or public. Demosthenes had said (22.55) that the greatest difference between a slave and a free person is that the slave “is answerable with his body for all offenses.” And the reputation of slaves for deception was met by Roman laws requiring that their testimony for law courts had to be verified under torture. Here it is noteworthy that by the 2d century C.E. Rome made corporal punishment and torture legal also for the humiliores, the lower classes among the free, citizen population.

Further, the fact that the owner of slaves owned the bodies and not just the work of the persons in slavery meant that slaves were generally regarded as sexually available without restriction. With respect to sexual exploitation of slaves, Hillel is remembered to have said: “Whoever multiplies female slaves multiplies promiscuity” (m. ʾAbot 2.8). So it is striking that neither the sexual risks for slaves nor the related temptations for their owners are mentioned specifically in NT documents, unless Paul had owners of slaves in mind when urging Christians “that you abstain from immorality, that each of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor” (1 Thess 4:3–4, RSV).

Transition: Mary believes the Lord’s promise, but she is hardly the first to do that.

David: Surprised by Nathan, He Trusts God’s Promise

About a thousand years before Mary said yes to Gabriel, King David found himself in a predicament. He had already built a nice cedar house for himself (2 Samuel 7:2), but the Lord was still living in the centuries-old tent first built after Moses led Israel out of Egypt (see Exodus 25-40).
David decides that he must build the Lord a worthy house.
In reality, the inspired author of 2 Samuel gives us some nifty clues that David’s motives may not be entirely pure: the cedar wood comes from a foreign king, beginning a pattern of alliances that will cause Israel much heartache in the next few centuries (see 2 Samuel 5:11 and 1 Kings 3:1, for example).
Indeed, God doesn’t even want a nice house. He’s quite happy living in a tent! (See 2 Samuel 7:6-7.)
But God has a better plan: he tells the prophet Nathan that David is not to build a house-building for God, but instead that God will build a house-dynasty for David.
Although the word “covenant” is not used in this passage in 2 Samuel, the subsequent Hebrew tradition, exemplified in our Responsorial Psalm, would call this promise the Davidic Covenant.
Unlike the covenant with Moses (a vassal-type covenant), this covenant is a promissory covenant, one in which God makes a promise with no strings attached, expecting nothing from David in return. We have lots of ancient secular examples of these kinds of covenants:
Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Volumes I–XV VI. The Covenants with Abraham and David; The Royal Grant

Just as the obligatory covenant in Israel is modelled on the suzerain-vassal type of treaty, so the promissory covenant is modelled on the royal grant. Like the royal grants in the ancient Near East, so also the covenants with Abraham and David are gifts bestowed upon individuals who distinguished themselves in loyally serving their masters. Abraham is promised the land because he V 2, p 271 obeyed God and followed his mandate (Gen. 26:5; cf. 22:16–18), and similarly David was given the grace of kingship because he served God in truth, righteousness, and loyalty (1 K. 3:6; 9:4; 11:4, 6; 14:8; 15:3). The terminology employed in this context is very close to that used in the Assyrian grants. Thus in the grant of Ashurbanipal to his servant, we read: “[Balṭāya] …, whose heart is whole to his master, stood before me with truthfulness, walked in perfection in my palace, … and kept the charge of my kingship (iṣṣur maṣṣarti).… I took thought of his kindness and decreed (therefore) his gi[f]t.” Identical formulations are to be found in connection with the promises to Abraham and David. With regard to Abraham, it is said that “he kept my charge” (lit. “my watch,” shamar mishmarti) (Gen. 26:5), “walked before God” (24:40; 48:15), and is expected “to be perfect” (17:1). David’s loyalty to God is couched in phrases that are even closer to the Assyrian grant terminology, as, “he walked before God in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart” (1 K. 3:6), “he followed God with all his heart” (1 K. 14:8), etc.

Land and “house” (= dynasty), the subjects of the Abraham and Davidic covenants, are the most prominent gifts of the suzerain in the Hittite and Syro-Palestinian provenance; and like the Hittite grants, the grant of the land to Abraham and the grant of the “house” to David are unconditional. Thus, we hear the Hittite king saying to his vassal: “After you, your son and grandson will possess it; nobody will take it away from them. If one of your descendants sins, the king will prosecute him, … but nobody will take away either his house or his land in order to give it to a descendant of somebody else.” The same concept lies behind the promise of the “house” to David and his descendants in 2 S. 7:8–16.

A Hittite grant typologically similar to the grant of the dynasty to David is found in the decree of Hattusilis concerning Middannamuwas, his chief scribe: “Middannamuwas was a man of grace (kaniššanza UKU-aš) to my father, … and my brother Muwatallis was (kindly) disposed to him, promoted him (kanešta), and gave him Hattusas. My grace (aššul) was also shown to him.… I committed myself for the sons of Middannamuwas, … and you will keep … and so shall the sons of my Sun and the grandsons of my Sun keep. And as my Sun, Hattusilis, and Puduḫepas, the great queen, were kindly disposed (kanešta) toward the sons of Middanamuwas, so shall be my sons and grandsons.… And they shall not abandon the grace (aššulan anda lē dalii̯anzi) of my Sun. The grace and their positions shall not be removed.”

But there’s a problem by the time our psalmist writes today’s Psalm. The throne has been destroyed. David’s dynasty seems dead. How could God ever allow this? Did God break his promise? Indeed, the psalmist is aghast; see Psalm 89:39-41.
So David’s example teaches us two things:
David is a flawed character yet trusts in the Lord’s promises. We’re just as flawed, and so we have some hope!
We are hardly the first to struggle to see how God will be faithful.
Transition: 2020 is hardly the first challenge to trusting in God’s promises.

Christians Today: Battered by 2020, We Trust in God’s Promise

One thing I love about being Catholic is our liturgical calendar. Each year, we remember the central mysteries of Christ’s life and seek to enter more deeply into them each time.
Last Christmas, where were you in your relationship with God?
Were you joyful, filled with optimism as a new decade prepared to dawn?
Were you weary, hopeful that the new year would be better?
Were you just treading water, perhaps dealing with stress and frequent change in life, barely hanging on in faith?
Where are you now?
It’s been the most trying year any of us can remember: illness, loneliness, social unrest, a most divisive election with the longest aftermath since 1876.
Do we still trust in the Lord’s promises?
I have good news! We’ve been here before.
Mary lived as an oppressed Jew, living under the political domination of the Roman Empire. No matter how fed up you are with our state and federal government, we should all agree: we have it better than she did!
David was a veteran of several wars. He was king, yes, but he had to fight for every stretch of territory. Due to several poor decisions in his life, he knew family strife. Just read the story of Absalom (2 Samuel 13-18) if you have any doubt of that!
As we do every year, Advent reminds us of the Lord’s coming: once in humility at Bethlehem, once in glory at the end of time, but also sacramentally in the Eucharist and in an untold number of other smaller ways (in a secondary sense, to be sure, but still real): in prayer, in community, and Sacred Scripture.
When he ascended into heaven, the Lord Jesus gave us a parting shot: “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
Do we believe this promise?
David said yes 3000 years ago; Mary said yes 2000 years ago; what shall each of us say today?
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