Scripture and the Liturgy

The Once and Future King: 4th Advent

T.H. White wrote a fantasy novel about King Arthur in the 1950s called “The Once and Future King,” which my English class was assigned to read in 8th grade.  The title comes from the legendary Latin inscription on Arthur’s tomb, Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus: “Here lies Arthur, king at one time, and king to be.”

For the ancient Israelites, David was their “Arthur”: a king of fame and renown, to whom God had made great promises, and whose return they expected.

The Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent are strongly set up to show Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of the covenant promises to King David of old.  In fact, the First Reading and Psalm are without doubt the two most important chapters of the Old Testament concerning the Davidic covenant: 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89.

Reading 1 2 Sm 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16

When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
“Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!”
Nathan answered the king,
“Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you.”
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
“Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?’

“‘It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make your name great, like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.”

The First Reading is the basic account of God’s grant to David of a covenant of kingship.  This Davidic covenant is the last and climactic divine covenant recorded in the Old Testament.  Prior to David, covenants had been made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and all Israel (through Moses).  The Davidic covenant is, in a sense, a fulfillment of all of these: David is a successor of the Patriarchs Adam, Noah, and Abraham; and a sacred embodiment and representative (as king) of all Israel.  It is hard to overemphasize the importance of God’s covenant with David to the theology of the Old Testament: it’s influence is pervasive in the historical books, the psalms, and the prophets.  Essentially, outside the Pentateuch, the Old Testament is largely “the David channel.” 

Raymond Brown has a famous quote on the significance of the Davidic covenant and kingdom in Christian theology:

The story of David brings out all the strengths and weaknesses of the beginnings of the religious institution of the kingdom for the people of God. . . .  The kingdom established by David . . . is the closest Old Testament parallel to the New Testament church. . . . To help Christians make up their mind on how the Bible speaks [to church issues] it would help if they knew about David and his kingdom, which was also God’s kingdom and whose kings, with all their imperfections, God promised to treat as “sons” (2 Sm. 6:14).[1]

Now, back to the First Reading: the context is that David has firmly established the kingdom of Israel in his own hands, and now turns his attention to enhancing the worship of the LORD.  He desires to build God a house, that is, a temple; but God instead replies that he will build David a house, that is, a dynasty.  There is a wordplay in this famous chapter on the Hebrew term “house.”  A reciprocal relationship is set up between the House of David and the House of God.  God will build David’s House (dynasty), but David’s House (dynasty) will build the House of God.  Ultimately, in the mystery of God’s providence, the House of David and the House of God are going to become one reality.  The dynasty and the Temple are going to become one person (John 2:21), and by extension, one people (Eph 2:12-22).

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

R. (2a) For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
The promises of the LORD I will sing forever;
through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.
For you have said, “My kindness is established forever”;
in heaven you have confirmed your faithfulness.
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
“I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant:
Forever will I confirm your posterity
and establish your throne for all generations.”
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
“He shall say of me, ‘You are my father,
my God, the Rock, my savior.’
Forever I will maintain my kindness toward him,
and my covenant with him stands firm.”
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.

The Responsorial Psalm is one of the most pivotal psalms in the entire psalter, the last psalm of Book III, which praises God for his covenant faithfulness to David.  Notice how both the Psalm and the First Reading emphasize the Father-Son relationship between David (and his heirs) and God.  A covenant establishes kinship—a family relationship.  Thereafter, the covenant partners may be called by familial terms: usually either Father-Son (for a non-reciprocal covenant) or Brother-Brother (for a parity covenant).

Reading 2 Rom 16:25-27

Brothers and sisters:
To him who can strengthen you,
according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages
but now manifested through the prophetic writings and,
according to the command of the eternal God,
made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,
to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever. Amen

The Second Reading drives home the point that Christ’s birth was not an unexpected novum in the history of the world, but rather was the culmination of a divine plan “manifested through the prophetic writings” (for example, the readings from Isaiah over the past several ferial [weekday] masses):

Gospel Lk 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.

“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him 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,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.

The Gospel is the account of the Annunciation, and there is no end of what we could say about this beautiful passage, especially if we began to unpack its Mariological significance.  Nonetheless, in the context of these Readings, we want to highlight the Davidic Covenant themes.  Note that Mary is espoused to Joseph “of the house of David.”  Bargil Pixner, the great Benedictine archeologist and bible scholar, argues that Nazareth was a small community settled by Davidides (descendants of the royal house) in the post-exilic period and named “Nazareth” (“little branch or shoot”) after the promises of the nezer (“branch”) of David who was to come according to Isaiah 11:1.[2]

Note, too, that almost all the substance of Gabriel’s message to Our Blessed Mother in vv. 32-33 (“He will be great … and of his kingdom there will be no end”) is “taken” directly from 2 Samuel 7.  Gabriel is telling Mary that her child will fulfill all the promises made to David of old. 

There is even temple, or at least sanctuary, imagery in this Gospel reading, as Gabriel tells Our Mother that “the Power of the Most High will overshadow you,” using a rare Greek word episkiazo employed to describe the cloud of God’s presence which filled the Tabernacle in Ex. 40:35.  Mary is becoming a kind of new Tabernacle of the Presence of God.  We could say that the sanctuary-nature of Christ, who is both House of David and House of God, is being communicated to Mary by association.  As such, Our Mother is a type and icon of the Church, which also shares the sanctuary-nature of her Lord:

Of course, the docile submission of Our Mother to God’s word—a word that will involve a share in her Son’s suffering (Luke 2:35), but also a share in his glory (Rom 8:17)—is held up as an example for us all.

I used to preach on this text as a Protestant pastor each advent.  Although I was taught by my seminary professors (peace and good will to all of those excellent men) not to preach sermons focused on biblical characters as moral examples (I forget why exactly this was wrong), nonetheless, every year, after doing all my proper exegetical steps, I always came to the same conclusion: the author of this Gospel text is intentionally holding up the Blessed Mother as a moral example for his readership.

Obedience to God’s word is also going to mean both suffering and glory for us.  Let’s embrace it with the docility and submission that our society finds so unpalatable.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, S.S., “Communicating the Divine and Human in Scripture,” Origins 22.1 (May 14, 1992) 5-6, emphasis mine.

[2] Bargil Pixner, Paths of the Messiah: Messianic Sites in Galilee and Jerusalem (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2010), 3-21.

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