Saturday, December 19, 2009

In The Spirit Of Elijah He Will Prepare A People Fit For The Lord.

Saturday of the Third Week of Advent

Reading 1             Judges 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.


There are in the Bible a number of incidences where elderly women who had never borne a child are, through the intervention of God, blessed with a child, usually a son.

Today’s First Reading recounts one of these - the birth of Samson. What is special to all these stories is that the child to be born has a very special role given to it by God. It is as if to say that God had played a role with the mother in the birth of this child. He was, in a way, God’s child. And that is what we also see in today’s Gospel which speaks about the circumstances in which the elderly Elizabeth is blessed with a son, who will be John the Baptist

The reading is from the book of Judges. These ‘judges’ were really heroic figures from various Israelite tribes who were engaged in the struggle of the Israelites to establish their dominion over the land which they believed had been allotted to them by God. Not surprisingly, the present occupants of the territories were not too pleased and resisted strongly, with varying degrees of success and failure on both sides.

Our reading is concerned with one of these ‘judges’ - Samson. Overall, he is presented as being physically very strong but in other respects very weak, particularly where women were concerned. And it was a woman, the notorious Delilah, who would bring about his downfall. Nor, in spite of some successes, did he ever manage to free his country from the Philistine enemy. His exploits were more concerned with himself than his people.

The Philistines, who will appear later in the story of David (Goliath was a Philistine), were a non-Semitic people, possibly from Crete, who settled on the coastal plain of Palestine about the same time as the Hebrews were entering the land from the east. Conflict between them was inevitable.

Samson can be seen in a way as a symbol of his people. The misdeeds of the Israelites are often pictured by the prophets in the light of the foolish pursuit of foreign women, some of them of ill-repute, and falling victim to them. During the Judges’ period, the people constantly prostituted themselves in worshipping Canaanite gods.

Samson was from the tribe of Dan. His story is told from birth to death. We are only concerned today with his birth. His father’s name was Manoah and came from Zorah, in the territory of Dan. (Dan was one of the twelve sons of Jacob.) The wife, whose name is not given, is sterile - the greatest curse a married woman could suffer in her society.

She shares this fate with some other prominent women in the Old Testament - Sara, the mother of Isaac; Rebecca, the mother of Jacob; Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel; and, of course, in today’s Gospel, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist.

But it is then that an ‘angel of the Lord’ appears to her. She hears the wonderful words: “You will conceive and bear a son.” Words which are repeated in Gospel and will be heard again during the Annunciation to Mary.

Samson’s mother is to prepare for his birth by not taking wine or any food regarded as unclean. As a future liberator of his people, this son will be especially dedicated to the Lord. From his very conception he is to be regarded as a Nazirite. The word nazir in Hebrew means ‘consecrated’. A Nazirite was obliged to abstain from drinking wine or having his hair cut. In early times, the nazirite vow was for life but in later times it could be temporary and termination would be signified by the cutting of one’s hair. It is implied that Samson’s uncut hair is the source of his great strength, which is lost when it is cut by the treacherous Delilah.

When the child is born, his mother names him Samson, a word which means ‘sun’ or ‘brightness’. This could be an expression of joy over the birth of an unexpected child or refer to a nearby town, Beth Shemesh, ‘house of the sun’.

The passage ends with the words: “The child grew and the Lord blessed him: and the Spirit of the Lord began to move him.” This final remark refers to his future feats of strength. Compare this with the words about Jesus after he had returned to Nazareth following his presentation in the Temple by Mary and Joseph: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:52).

Today, let us reflect on our own calling by God. Perhaps there was nothing very special about it. Yet, like John the Baptist, each of us has been called to be a forerunner of Jesus, to prepare the way for Jesus to come into other people’s lives, especially those who have not yet had the experience of knowing him.

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Responsorial        Psalm 71

R. 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!

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Gospel                 Luke 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.”

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There are close parallels in Luke’s Infancy Narrative between the birth of John the Baptist and that of Jesus. There are also significant differences. The First Reading, too, provides a prototype for today’s Gospel story as it describes the birth of Samson.

Today we read about the annunciation to Zechariah, about the birth of a son to his elderly wife, already past child-bearing age. Clearly it was a birth which, in normal circumstances, should not have happened. In a society where having children, and especially boys, was a wife’s primary duty, to be unable to produce children was a terrible shame. It was the ultimate failure. One had been chosen as wife for this purpose and this purpose alone. Love and affection had very little to do with it. And it was, of course, presumed that it was the wife and not the husband who had failed.

That is why widows in the Scripture are listed as among the most pitiable of people. Such women might still be quite young when they lost their husbands to war, an accident or disease but, as “second-hand material”, they were not eligible for re-marriage (whatever about extramarital unions) and so could not be mothers. Being the mother of a son is what women were meant to be. A woman who could not be a mother was less than a person.

Right through the Scriptures - in both the Old and New Testaments the births of significant people happen in circumstance which point strongly to some divine intervention. So there are in the Bible a number of incidences where elderly women who had never borne a child are, through the intervention of God, blessed with a child, usually a son. So here, too, Elizabeth’s barrenness is seen less as a curse than as a preparation for something special.

As we see, today’s first reading recounts one of these - the birth of Samson. What is peculiar to all these stories is that the child to be born has a very special role given to it by God. So in today’s reading, too, there is a sign of God’s intervention in the birth of John the Baptist. He is no ordinary child. He has been chosen out for a very special purpose, to be the forerunner of Jesus, the last of the great prophets of the Hebrew Covenant.

The opening of Luke’s gospel is a kind of diptych with parallel stories announcing the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. We are not dealing here with literal history, although Luke posits the story in a genuinely historical context, “in the days of Herod, King of Judaea”. Luke writes in imitation of Old Testament birth accounts (like the one in the First Reading), mixing historical facts and legends. So we do not ask: Did all this happen exactly as described? Rather, we ask what does it mean? And primarily it is part of the answer to another question: Who is Jesus Christ?

In today’s story we have the classical situation of the elderly wife who is childless. Then one day, the husband, Zechariah, a member of the priestly caste is spoken to by an angel while serving in the Temple. The birth of a son is announced and his destiny. He will not touch strong drink (like Samson before him) and be filled with the Spirit of God even before his birth. He will be the source for many to find their way back to God. Zechariah responds with some scepticism and is punished with dumbness for his unbelief. But, following this experience, Elizabeth conceives a child.

The stage is set for the next, and more important, Annunciation.

Today, let us reflect seriously on our own calling by God. Like John, each of us has been called to be a forerunner of Jesus, to prepare the way for Jesus to come into other people’s lives, especially those who have not yet had the experience of knowing him.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

I think your last paragraph is a wonderful guide as to how we should live our everyday life. In everything we do, we either prepare the way or we set up obstacles -- I don't think there is much in between.