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Fourth Sunday of Advent - The Awesome Gift of Holiness

Sunday, December 18, 2011
Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5.8-12. 14.16, Psalm 88(89), Romans 16:25-27. Luke 1: 26-38

Holiness, according to the Old Testament, is not primarily a kind of moral goodness, but a characteristic of God, and a terrifying characteristic at that. Holiness for the ancient Hebrews is like a fire, it needs to be treated with respect and caution lest it burns up and destroys what is profane. This is why the levitical law has such strict purity laws, it is dangerous to approach God when unclean. Only those people and things that have been given a share in the holiness of God can survive His presence. Israel, unlike the gentile nations, is able to endure the presence of God because she has been set apart, because she has been consecrated: Israel, as the chosen people, participates in the holiness of God.

It is important to note that Israel did not earn her holiness, she was chosen: her intimacy with God is a grace, a gift. This explains why in our first reading the well meaning King David is unable to build a dwelling for God. No human construction, no matter how glorious, can be fit to recieve God; we cannot achieve holiness by our own strength, consecration is a gift. Instead God promises that one of David's offspring will 'build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever' (2 Samuel 7: 13).

This promise, both of a temple and an everlasting Kingdom, was of course preeminently fulfilled in Christ - Son of David and Son of God. John's Gospel tells us that when challenged to explain why he had expelled the money changers from the temple, Jesus declared: 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up' (John 2: 19). Where in the desert Israel met God at the Tent of Meeting, and after Solomon in the temple in Jerusalem, now Israel meets God in human flesh and blood - in Christ Jesus himself. God's love for Israel gives her a fertility that enables her to bring forth a divine life, the one who will give new life to the world.

In some sense, then, we have in today's Gospel, very fittingly for the last Sunday before Christmas, the fulfillment of the Old Testament. The Angel Gabriel tells Mary: "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" (Luke 1: 34). In Mary, then, the vocation of a nation is actualized. Just as Israel had been made holy, able to bear the terrifying and destructive holiness of God in the desert, Mary - immaculately conceived and protected from sin - was holy, able to bear the holiness of God in her womb. Mary was made able to 'tabernacle' the Incarnate God, and as such becomes an image of the church - the new Israel. Through our baptism we are made a limb of Christ: we are made part of his body, sharing in his holiness, sharing in the eternal and infinite love and life of the Trinity. This is an awesome gift, one that we ought not to take for granted. Through our union with Christ we stand in a holy fire of divine love. As we approach Christmas, let us make sure we are properly prepared, lest we get burnt.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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