Let the Scriptures Speak
Intimate and Cosmic
… the mystery kept secret for long ages, but now manifested
through the prophetic writings … (Second Reading)
We are learning to listen for echoes when we read the New Testament. The early Christian writers chose their words with an ear to the Hebrew Scriptures, usually in the Greek version, and they want us to hear those resonances to understand what they are saying about Jesus.
This Sunday's Gospel reading provides some rich examples of that echo phenomenon. Listen to the way Luke articulates the announcement of the conception and birth of Jesus: “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32-33).
The only way to make sense of that language is to hear it as an echo of several Old Testament passages, especially the one from 2 Samuel proclaimed as this Sunday's first reading.
Just as the Church was founded with wordplay (Jesus to Peter: you are Petros and upon this petra I will build my Church), the exchange between David and the prophet Nathan deals with the future of the Israelite monarchy using a kind of pun. David tells Nathan: I'm going to build a decent house (meaning temple) for God. Then Nathan tells David: It's the other way around; the Lord will build a house (here meaning dynasty) for David. The prophecy goes on to speak of the son of David: it is he, Solomon, who would carry out David's plan of building the other kind of house (temple) and that he would be a son to God and God a father to him.
This prophecy, first about Solomon and his immediate heirs, comes in time to be understood as a messianic text, looking to the ultimate son of David, who would liberate Israel from the oppressive imperial power and implement God's reign of peace.
The words of Gabriel's message, then, evoke the Nathan prophecy (as well as Psalm 2:7), but with a much fuller meaning; the one to be born of Mary is going to be Son of God not just in the adoptive, royal sense but in a genetic, divine sense.
And how will Jesus inherit the throne of David? It does not happen in his earthly lifetime. It happens in his death and resurrection. In supreme irony, Jesus is first proclaimed to the world as God's Anointed One in the Roman placard giving the reason for his death penalty of crucifixion: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
But we have to move on to the Acts of the Apostles to learn how Luke understands the prophecy of Nathan as fulfilled in Jesus. The connection is made in Peter's Pentecost speech. Explicating Psalm 16 in the light of 2 Samuel 7 (and its parallel, Psalm 132), Peter says:
Since he [David] was a prophet and knew that God had sworn an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that neither was he abandoned to the netherworld nor did his flesh see corruption (Acts 2:30-31).
Thus it is in resurrection that Jesus is enthroned over Israel, the full, end-time, twelve-tribe “house of Jacob” (now understood as the Church).
We may choose to focus on the Bethlehem creche as we approach Christmas. Luke, however, cannot speak of the coming of the Messiah without evoking the whole history of Israel and its culmination in the Church. That helps us see where we fit in and what time it really is.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University