Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 20)

God is with us. The Lord walks with us in our journey of life. The unseen God first made himself known to Israel. He formed a covenant with them. Two of the symbols of this relationship were the Ark of the Covenant and the Kingship of David. The two helped remind Israel of God and his presence with them. They also prepared them for God’s definitive dwelling among us when his Son took on flesh and became man.

The Ark of the Covenant was a chest that contained several items of great significance for Israel. The twin tablets of the covenant on which the Ten Commandments were written, the staff of Aaron and a container of the manna were held in the gold-covered trunk. While Israel was wandering in the desert, the ark was housed in the Tent of Dwelling. Later, after they were settled in the Holy Land, a permanent structure was built to hold the ark; this was the temple in Jerusalem.

The first reading for this Sunday’s liturgy recalls David’s desire to build a house for the “ark of God.” When David makes his plans known to Nathan the prophet, he is first told to proceed. However, the Lord puts those plans on hold. He reminds David that it was he, the Lord, who took David from his flocks of sheep making him the commander of Israel.

He promises David that his “house” will be blessed. His throne shall be firm. The Lord promises to raise up an heir for him of whom he says: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” Through this heir, David’s kingdom and throne will endure forever.

Solomon, David’s son, will later build a house for the Lord in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant. The temple was modeled after the Tent of Dwelling. The innermost sanctuary of the temple complex was where the ark was placed. This room was called the “holy of holies,” the most sacred part of the temple, and took on a symbolic representation of God’s dwelling place among Israel.

It was so sacred a place that no one could enter except the high priest, and that was only once a year. On the Day of Atonement, he would enter the tabernacle and make an offering before ark also known as the “mercy seat.” The ritual reminded Israel that God is merciful and forgives their sins.

Three hundred years later, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, killed the king and destroyed the temple. While Solomon’s Temple was rebuilt three generations later, the monarchy came to an end. The Isaiah reading reminds us of these two important symbols of God’s presence and points us to a greater dwelling among men prepared for by the ark and the kingship.

God’s presence among Israel and mankind culminates with the Incarnation of the Son of God whose birth we prepare to celebrate on Christmas. Jesus is the heir of David whose kingdom is established and never ends.

In the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary about her son to be born if she accepts God’s invitation: “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, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary for her part accepts the mission to bear and raise God’s son. Her “fiat” is the opening of her heart and body to accept the Son of God and provide a dwelling place for him as his body grows and takes shape within her. Mary becomes the new Ark of the Covenant. The symbol is replaced with a living body. God dwells among men in the body of Mary. Her “yes” to the Lord ushers in God’s dwelling among men as man. The dawn of salvation is here.

Mary provides us inspiration and witness as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. She opened her heart to receive the Lord. Christmas provides a time of renewal for us. We remember the Father sending his Son to us through Mary. On our part, we have the opportunity once again to accept him. We are already united with him in our baptism and he is always one with us.

Our lives are, at once, simple and complex. We have many aspects of our lives and God wants to be a part of them all — our intellect, our will, our hopes, our desires, our pains, our sufferings, our talents, our affections, our relationships, our responsibilities, our vocations and our work.

As we prepare for Christmas, we may recognize some area or areas where we have not opened the door for him. This area needs his light without which there may be darkness. Perhaps we are filled with fear. Perhaps we have not forgiven someone. Perhaps we are worried about the pandemic. Perhaps we are anxious over responsibilities in life. Perhaps there is an aspect of our lives where conversion is needed, where mercy is required. Perhaps it is something else.

A few weeks ago we heard the Baptist proclaim: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” The opportunity is here. Now is the time to open our hearts, as Mary did, so we can receive her Son anew as we celebrate Christmas.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.