A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, December 18, 2011, the Fourth Sunday of Advent | Carl E. Olson
• 2 Sm 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
• Ps 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29
• Rom 16:25-27
• Lk 1:26-38
“Hail! tabernacle of God and the Word. Hail! holy beyond all holy ones. Hail! ark gilded by the Holy Ghost. Hail! unfailing treasure-house of life.”
These words from the ancient Akathist hymn, a great sixth-century song of praise for the mystery of the Incarnation, poetically summarize the Marian themes in today’s readings. The Theotokos—the Mother of God—is the dwelling place of God, the “container of the Uncontainable God,” and “the womb of God enfleshed.”
Many of the early Church fathers spoke of Mary as the new ark of the covenant. “Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling,” the Catechism remarks, “is the daughter of Zion in person, the ark of the covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells” (par. 2676). The ark of the covenant, described in Exodus 25, was a gold-plated wooden chest containing holy objects, including some manna, Aaron’s rod, and a copy of the covenant between God and Israel (Heb. 9:4-5). Its lid, the mercy seat, was made of gold and adorned with two cherubim, representing the throne of God.
For a long time the ark was kept in a mobile tabernacle. Eventually, as we hear in today’s first reading, King David desired to build a permanent house, or temple, for the ark. In responding to David, the Lord made clear that the only one who could build an everlasting house for God is God himself; he promised to eventually “raise up” an heir who would establish an everlasting throne and kingdom.
The raising up of an heir was realized in the coming down of the Son through the mystery of the Incarnation—“the mystery kept secret for long ages,” in the words of Saint Paul. The King of kings and Lord of lords rested within the throne of a womb; the Creator of all things visible was carried, invisible, within the Virgin; the Conqueror of sin and death was kept and concealed within the Blessed Mother.
“Hail! O you who have become a kingly Throne. Hail! O you who carries Him Who carries all! Hail, O Star who manifests the Sun. Hail! O Womb of the Divine Incarnation!”
Mary, created without sin, finding favor with God, and accepting in faith the call of the Lord, became a living, breathing ark of the covenant. “Full of grace, Mary is wholly given over to him who has come to dwell in her and whom she is about to give to the world” (CCC 2676). As God once dwelt in the tabernacle among a nomadic people, he now comes to dwell, through a singular woman, among men—pilgrims journeying toward their heavenly home. “For the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men” (CCC 721).
David longed to build a temple and his son Solomon did build the temple, but only God could and did create a sinless, human temple.
Only God, because of his power and love, could become so small and humble so that he might save us. It is God who reaches out, who dwells among man, who becomes flesh and blood for our sake. Nothing, the angel Gabriel explains to the young Jewish virgin, “will be impossible for God.”
“May it be done to me according to your word.” With those words, Mary demonstrated the proper response to God, bursting with quiet faith and trusting reception. Opening herself to God’s word, she was filled with the Word who is God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she became the throne of God.
"Behold,” exclaims the Akathist hymn, “heaven was brought down to earth when the Word Himself was fully contained in you! Now that I see Him in your womb, taking a servant’s form, I cry out to you in wonder: Hail, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!” During Christmas we cry out in wonder at the work of God and the faith of his mother.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the December 21, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)