The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C), 23 December 2018

December 23, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Micah 5:2-5a Psalm 80:1-7 Hebrews 10:5-10 Luke 1:39-45, (46-55) Song of Mary [Luke 1:46b-5]

Discussion of the Texts:     As Advent draws to a close, it seems apropos to reflect upon the last several weeks. Advent is a season which is not as forlorn as its companion season, Lent, may often be perceived. In fact, Advent was once forty days long like Lent, beginning with the Feast of St. Martin. Today, two rites of the Catholic Church still follow this practice, viz. the Ambrosian and Mozarabic rites. We find that the word “Advent” is derived from the Latin adventus, which is the common translation for the Greek feminine noun παρουσία (parousia). Being itself derived from the Greek παρόν (parōn, or “present”), παρουσία is a combination of this and the noun ουσία (ousia, or “substance”). On balance, the word refers to an arrival or some expected “coming,” especially of some dignitary. In a more literal sense, it refers to a personal presence. The readings for this week speak to all of these themes as we approach the culmination of the present season.

We begin this week’s readings with the prophet Micah. Theodore Heibert notes that the book contains two types of prophetic passages: accusatory and salvific (Heibert, “Micah: Introduction,” The Access Bible, Updated Edition, 1256). The former are frequently directed toward the elite of Israel, particularly the rulers and the priests; the latter, in contrast, are directed toward the people to inspire hope for an approaching time of renewal. Today’s passage is of the second kind: the author begins by calling the attention of “Bethlehem of Ephrathah” of the tribe of Judah, stating that from them “shall come forth for [God] one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). This new ruler is described as a shepherd, feeding and defending God’s people (5:4), and that “he [sic] shall be the one of peace” (5:5).

This dovetails into the cry of supplication from the Psalmist in Psalm 80: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!” (Ps. 80:1–2). Jerome H. Neyrey points out that the refrain of verses 3, 7, 14 (modified), and 19 are the structural support for the petition of the Psalmist (Neyrey, “Note on 80:1–19,” The Access Bible, 804): “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (80:3). Interwoven between these supports are statements of the grief the author (and the people) have suffered, presumably at the “hands” of God (see 80:4–6). But, even the grief and suffering at the hands of other peoples does not preclude for the Psalmist an affirmation of the sovereignty of God, calling them Shephard (a royal title for the Psalmist; see Ezekiel 34:1–16). The expectation then arises within the refrain, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (80:7).

Coming now to the readings from the Christian New Testament, we are first met with the Letter to the Hebrews. Once believed to have been written by Paul, scholarly consensus now holds that the author was someone else who chose to identify as Paul for the purpose of Pauline authority (Jerome H. Neyrey, “Introduction: Hebrews,” The Access Bible, 2006). Clear Platonic influence is suggested within the opening verses of Hebrews 10 (i.e. shadows v. forms); still, this does not belie the letter’s weight or authority. The author of the letter goes on to reference Psalm 40:6–8 regarding obedience and sacrifice (Heb. 10:5–7), going so far as to say that “He [Jesus] abolishes the first in order to establish the second” (10:9) It is important to note that a literalist reading here raises the danger of supersessionism. As such, we should suffice to say that Jesus of Nazareth is best understood as presenting for the early Christians a model for obedience, one which does not preclude “sacrifice” or ritual “according to the law”: “And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (10:10).

In a manner of speaking, the Gospel reading from Luke provides an ecstatic capstone for this Sunday’s readings, given our proximity to the celebration of Christmas. From Luke we read the Magnificat, one of the most ancient of Marian hymns of the Christian traditions. (It is a hymn I know well, as I prayed it every day for two years when I was a Roman Catholic minor seminarian.) The Greek tradition, giving Mary the title of “God-Bearer,” calls it “The Ode of the Theotokos.” The title of Magnificat is taken from the Latin translation of the opening line: “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Lk 1:46). The prayer/hymn ultimately glorifies the presence of God to the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed.

Process Theology and the Texts:     The way I see things for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, there are a few chief themes which are connected to process thought within the readings. Limiting myself to one such theme, what seems to be the most obvious would be the connection drawn between God and those who are disenfranchised. This connection is best illustrated, I would aver, toward the end of Process and Reality:

The action of the fourth [creative] phase, [when creative action completes itself,] is the love of God for the world. It is the particular providence for particular occasions. What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion—the fellow sufferer who understands. (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality [1929] 1957, 532; emphasis added)

What process thought tells us is that God not only desires beauty, goodness, and truth, but that God experiences with the world those events which do not yet reach the then greatest possible beauty, goodness, and truth.

Preaching the Texts:     We are truly on the cusp of the culmination of the entire Advent season. We find ourselves in the penumbra of Christmas Eve, the last hours of the night before the pre-dawn light of the rising sun begins to touch the horizon. As such, there are a number of avenues for preaching the texts for this week. One such avenue would be (for a more philosophically-minded congregation) the theological ramifications derived from the etymology of “Advent” (e.g. how does a Whiteheadian process approach reconcile the explicit reference to the concept of substance). Of course, such topics are perhaps better reserved for small discussion groups.

Highlighting only one theme, we could pose for ourselves the following question: for what—or for whom—are we waiting? Since adventus and parousia speak of arrival or a presence, neither is necessarily the actual arrival. This is the case for the present season: we are waiting. Again, for what and/or for whom? One answer can be found if we read further than verse 7 of Psalm 80. In doing so we find a reference connecting the Psalm to the reading from Micah: “But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself” (Ps. 80:17). Where we find this resonating with Micah is verse 4, namely reference to the strength of God as the food of the people. Now, Neyrey suggests that this verse of the Psalm be read in conjunction with the following verse, stating that it suggests a “future ruler” whose identity is in fact corporate, being the whole people (Neyrey, “Note on 80:1–19,” The Access Bible, 804): “Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name” (Ps. 80:18). Whether or not the Psalmist intended to suggest corporate identification with the future ruler, the possibility provides a practical point upon which to preach: insofar as we have been preparing for the adventus of December 25, we are all called to embody light for the world. We are the ones who are called to re/turn and embody the Parousia. And, this being so, we can make the same proclamation as Mary’s Magnificat

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a second year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology. Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy and the traditions of the Ainu People of Japan), in light of Whiteheadian process thought. Rob is also the current English Coordinator for The Balkan Journal of Philosophy, Editorial Assistant with the Whitehead Research Project, and the 2018/19 Research Assistant for Philip Clayton.