We may be tempted to think of December 25 as THE day, the day God is born in our midst. We may be tempted to think of it as a one time magnificent act, God changing everything that day in Bethlehem. Think again: God is born among us once, then, but this is a living reality, God becoming flesh and blood over a thousand generations, God not merely a visitor, but God here to stay, in all the perfections and messiness of our families as they are in every generation. Consider each of the readings we hear on this 4th Sunday of Advent.
In I Samuel 7, David wants to build a fine temple for God. The logic is plausible: David is now a great king, living in a palace; should he not thank God by building a fine temple, a home for God? But the prophet Nathan receives a message from God that turns things upside down, as God has plans for David:
"Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Who are you to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7.5-7)
"The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you. When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish their kingdom. (7.11-12)
David's own kingly family does continue for a while, with good kings and bad, triumphs and disasters, and Jesus is of that lineage. But God's plan has an even longer reach, building for David a family that comes fully alive at the Nativity, and from that day on to flourish in good times and bad down through the centuries, person by person, family by family, communities large and small in all their virtues and sins, fears and loves.
And so we turn from David to Mary. Today’s Gospel is the very well-known story of the Annunciation, the story of God continuing the lineage of David, now in this young woman. Mary is drawn into God’s great plan by surprise. She is simply a young woman of child-bearing age. She has no life plan yet, as far as we know from the little Luke says. She is not even like John the Baptist, who for whatever reason had already been living in the desert, waiting for the Word of God that comes to him. Mary seems to be minding her own business, seeming to await the day of her marriage. And so it is that she is surprised by God when Gabriel, that great and solemn messenger, comes to her and announces the grand plan in which she is now to play a surprisingly large part:
"But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1.30-33)
Mary listens, and then very simply asks how this might come about. She is not even married yet, only engaged to Joseph, and so is not about to have a child, any child, much less the Son of God. It is all quite impossible — so what exactly does God intend? Gabriel responds with a remarkable promise of what the Spirit will do, and what God will do even for Mary's cousin Elizabeth (as the family immediately grows):
"The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Elizabeth your cousin is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail. (1.35-37)
Hearing all this, Mary simply consents:
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (1.38)
And so God’s entire plan moves forward, the Son of God now become a son in the lineage of David, son of Joseph, son of Mary. This is a new beginning in the great story of God dwelling among us, but not its end. Salvation is, after all, the story of a thousand generations.
Of course: Jesus did not marry and did not have children, and so his heritage is of a different kind, the family of those who hear him and follow him. Luke explains this later on:
"Then his mother and his brothers and sisters came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. He was told, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are standing outside, wanting to see you.” But he told them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (8.19-20)
And so it is that many more generations, ourselves included, end up being the family of Jesus, the descendants of David, descendants of Mary and Joseph.
And finally, there is our second reading, the very last lines of St. Paul’s great Letter to the Romans, dedicated to the good news:
"The revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, only now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God — that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes of faith. (Romans 16.25-26)
All the Gentiles, everybody, whoever, wherever: God dwelling among us, Jesus still always and first of all a son of Israel, but now gathering a larger and more inclusive family from which no one need be excluded.
In our pandemic world at this difficult Christmas, our task then is to be like David, to let God build a home for us; like Mary, who says yes in a remarkably simple way, and then takes on every duty and all the worries of raising her son; and like Paul, who sees that this community has no limits, near or far, now or in the future. In the cold and dark days of December 2020 this means that we need to tell the whole story again in our own words, in every home and in every family, making sense of God's promises for ourselves — but also for those who come after us in God's ever widening family on earth.
(The second image above is a painting of the Annunciation by the famed Indian artist, Jyoti Sahi.)