Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015

Before the first reading:

Israel's great king David had come from the minor town Bethlehem. So every king in the line of David was said to come from there. At a time when corrupt leaders had let Jerusalem fall prey to invasion, and its people to exile, Micah prophesies that God will use a new king to turn things back to the good.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

Early Jewish converts to Christ were cut off from institutions and religious practices that had comforted them. The letter to the Hebrews explains how their new relationship with Christ surpasses everything they had before. In this passage, old sacrifices and sin-offerings are gone, but replaced by our ability to imitate Jesus in doing God's will.

Before the gospel acclamation:

Saint Luke's gospel opens with the story of the elderly Elizabeth miraculously conceiving a child. In the next paragraph Mary conceives. Now the two women meet.

First Reading, Micah 5:1-4a

The Historical Situation: Among the targets of the prophet Micah were the corrupt leaders of Judah in Jerusalem. He prophesies their doom in chapters 1, 2 and 3. Chapter 4 optimistically predicts the restoration of the people there to a godly state. Furthermore, in Chapter 5 Micah says they'll be led by a new king, from the town of the great historic king David ("Bethlehem-Ephrathah"), and from David's family ("whose origin is from of old, from ancient times").

Your Proclamation: The lector should emphasize this contrast: "one who is to be ruler" is to come from the "too small" town of Bethlehem. And this contrast: the simple, godly people, downtrodden and driven away by the corrupt, shall "return to the children of Israel" ... "and they shall remain."

Second Reading, Hebrews 10:5-10

The Historical Situation: The letter to the Hebrews was written for the benefit of Jewish converts to Christianity. When their old friends turned them out of synagogue and Temple, they were bereft. They missed the institutions of Judaism, especially the law, the priesthood, rituals, and sacrifices. The author of this letter is determined to show them that Christ and their relationship with Him in the church replace and improve upon everything they've been asked to give up.

So the letter has some complex theological arguments about how the acts and words and legacy of Jesus take the place of the formerly required institutions. The style of argumentation is quite foreign to us. It's the style of some of the rabbis of the time, where quotes out of context are fair game, and seemingly random ideas, if they share a word or two of vocabulary, can be yoked together to make a point.

Thus in today's passage Jesus is said to have quoted Psalm 40. Doubtless he did so, at some point in his life, but doubtless he did not do so in an inaugural address at the beginning of his mission. The author is giving an interpretation of Jesus' whole mission that, simplified, goes like this: Jesus knew that the sacrifices and sin-offerings of Judaism were of no avail, and he doesn't want his followers relying on them or pining for them. What Jesus did was come into the world and do the Father's will in the world (something we had been unable to do since Adam and Eve). That Jesus did so wins for us everything we might have hoped to gain from a lifetime of ritual sacrifices.

Our Liturgical Situation: So what is this doing in our calendar of readings today? Didn't the editors of the Lectionary know that this is when we want tidings of comfort and joy, when we want to identify with the little drummer boy playing for the baby, when our Christmas sentiments are the most, well, sentimental? This cold dose of high theology might be appointed for proclamation today because it portrays the Son of God accepting a human body; that incarnation is a Christmas theme. Or maybe it's here because it gives the most profound of statements about why Jesus came into the world at all, "Behold, I come to do your will."

Your Proclamation: Given the likely seasonal disposition of the assembly, and the complexity of the argument here, what's the lector to do? In the past, I said I would just emphasize the sentence

Then he says, "Behold, I come to do your will."

and let the inspirations fall where they may.

However, a more faithful response would be to treat this like every other reading, on any Sunday of the year. That is, figure out what is the point of the reading and how to get that point across. The point is that Christ in our lives wants to replace some things we've grown comfortable with. What he offers is better, but the change is scary. For Jesus the issue was doing the Father's will, even if that will contradicted traditional ideas and made obsolete traditional practices. You get that point across by making your own the mind of Jesus, then reciting this speech as he would have recited it. Doing so will make a difference in the life of the lector and the lives of some listeners, if not in the hurly-burly of the last week of Advent, then in good time, before Jesus comes again.

Gospal Reading, Luke 1:39-45

A Homily Starter: Granted this is the most difficult time of the year to avoid the trite, the homilist who nevertheless wants to say something meaty might consider this: The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth is the first assembly of people because of Christ. So it is fair to call it the first meeting of the Church. Indeed three things happen here that are (or ought to be) typical of all the meetings of the Church:

In a latter-day meeting of the Church, the first of these assertions gives rise to the second, as congregants should wonder "What are we doing together? What have we in common? Only Christ! But for Christ, we would disdain one another, or compete, or worse." And only the first and second together can make individuals bold enough to embrace the third and proclaim it prophetically.

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Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

Credit for the picture at the top:

Detail from Luca della Robbia's Visitation, c. 1445, Glazed terracotta, 184 x 153 cm, San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia, Tuscany, central Italy. A larger version of this photo is here.

Click here for a larger view of the whole sculpture, courtesy of World Gallery of Art.

Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.

This page updated November 10, 2015