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Scripture In Depth
Fourth Sunday in Advent B
December 20, 2020
Reginald H. Fuller

In series B the Gospel readings are taken from the Gospel of Mark, supplemented by the Gospel of John. This is necessary because Mark’s Gospel, being the shortest, requires supplementing. Also, in the three-year cycle, John is otherwise read only on certain occasions (especially Lent and Eastertide) in series A and C.

Let us first remind ourselves of the structure of the Advent season. The theme of future eschatology—the Christian hope for the final consummation of history—dominates the concluding Sundays of the year and reaches its climax on the first Sunday of Advent.


Reading I: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16

This passage gives classical expression to the Davidic-messianic hope in the Old Testament. It is not the only type of the messianic hope, but it later became dominant in many circles, for example among the Pharisees, as we see from Psalms Solomon 17; among the covenanters of Qumran, who looked for both a Messiah of David and a Messiah of Levi; and among the simple pious folk of Judea and Galilee, as we see from the Lucan infancy narrative.

In its original intention, however, 2 Sam 7 was an expression of royal ideology. The promise was that the Davidic dynasty would last forever. Note how David’s original intention is reversed by the prophet’s later word. David indicates his intention of building a house for Yhwh, that is, a temple.

At first, Nathan approves of the king’s proposal but later corrects this in the light of a further word from the Lord received in the night. Instead of David’s building a house (temple) for Yhwh, Yhwh covenants to maintain the “house” (dynasty) of David in perpetuity.

Strictly speaking, then, this is not a messianic prophecy in the later sense, for it does not speak of the coming of the ideal Davidic king. But after the destruction of the Davidic monarchy, this promise could only take the form of the coming of a Davidic Messiah, and in Christian perspective the promise has been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus the Christ, whom the New Testament (as in the Lucan Annunciation story that forms the gospel reading today) proclaims as the Son of David.


Responsorial Psalm: 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29

This psalm makes a perfect response to the first reading, for, as the Jerome Biblical Commentary points out, the two passages should be read in conjunction. Only the second and third stanzas deal directly with the Davidic-messianic hope.

The first stanza comes from the opening of the psalm, which is a general hymn of praise to Yhwh. But the first stanza is not unrelated to the messianic hope, for the faithfulness of Yhwh is exhibited precisely in his faithfulness to his covenant with David. Note how the second stanza refers quite specifically to the covenant of 2 Samuel.


Reading II: Romans 16:25-27

In the manuscript tradition, this doxology appears at three different places: after Rm 14:23; after Rm 15:33; and in its canonical position here. Some have thought that it is a Marcionite gloss, for it seems to assume that the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ had been silent through the Old Testament period, as Marcion taught.

However, this is untenable for two reasons. First, Origen explicitly informs us that Marcion did not read these verses in his text. Second, Marcion would never have allowed that the writings of the Old Testament prophets were instruments through which the Christian revelation was proclaimed, even in the Christian era.

The doxology actually has close affinities with the style and thought of Colossians and Ephesians (cf. especially Col 1:26-27Eph 3:9-10) and is therefore probably the work of a Deutero-Pauline editor of Romans.

Judging from the various places where it appears in the manuscript tradition, it was probably added as a conclusion to Romans in the three different versions that were current in early times—ending respectively with chapters 14, 15, and 16.

The statement that the revelation was kept secret before Christ does not mean that the Old Testament God is a different God from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as Marcion thought, but that it is only with the coming of Christ that the Old Testament prophecies acquire their full meaning. The movement from silence to revelation is a good Advent theme.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

Annunciation stories are a regular literary form of Scripture. There are a number of such stories in the Old Testament (for example, the births of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel), and of course Luke has already recorded the annunciation of John the Baptist.

We should make full allowance for this literary form in assessing this narrative. The purpose of annunciation stories is to acquaint the readers with the role that the person about to be born is to play in salvation history. It is thus a device to effect this end, not a historical narration.

At the same time, there are elements in the story of Jesus’ annunciation that surpass the other annunciation stories.

The usual situation is that of a miraculous birth granted to a barren couple—in the case of Isaac, to parents who were even past the age of begetting and bearing children. In the case of Jesus, it is an annunciation to a young woman without a husband. The emphasis rests on the creative act of the Holy Spirit rather than on the virginal conception per se, which is its presupposition.

All that the historian can say with certainty is that the basic elements in this tradition are earlier than Matthew or Luke, for the name of Mary, her virginity, and the function of the Holy Spirit are common both to Matthew and Luke, who are otherwise entirely independent of one another at this point.

Many would also argue that these traditions can be traced back to the earliest Palestinian stratum of Christianity. Beyond that point, however, the historian qua historian cannot go. The exegete must deal rather with the meaning.

What is the kerygmatic thrust of the Annunciation? It is that the history of Jesus does not emerge out of the stream of ongoing history. As Adolf Schlatter put it, it expresses the transcendental origin of the history of Jesus. Or, as Sir Edwyn Hoskyns put it, the Incarnation is “a dagger thrust into the weft of human history.”

Our response to the annunciation story should be not to accept it as an entertaining story or even to insist merely on its historicity and leave it at that. As such, it would still be “flesh,” which profiteth nothing. Our response should rather be the affirmation of faith in the transcendental origin of Jesus’ history.

The role that the Child to be born is to play in salvation history is defined in terms of Davidic messiahship. Thus, the Gospel Reading is linked with the Old Testament Reading. Christian faith sees the promise to, and covenant with, David fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ.

Reginald H. Fuller
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Preaching the Lectionary:
The Word of God for the Church Today

Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition), pp. 217-220.

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