(from the book: Where is the Child? by Fr. R. Marcos (Makati: St Pauls); 

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First Reading: Judges 13:2-7; 24-25a

There was a certain man from Zorah, of the clan of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren and had borne no children. An angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her: Though you are barren and have had no children, you will conceive and bear a son. Now, then, be careful to take no wine or beer and to eat nothing unclean, for you will conceive and bear a son. No razor shall touch his head, for the boy is to be a nazirite for God from the womb.  It is he who will begin to save Israel from the power of the Philistines.

The woman went and told her husband, “A man of God came to me; he had the appearance of an angel of God, fearsome indeed. I did not ask him where he came from, nor did he tell me his name. But he said to me, ‘You will conceive and bear a son. So drink no wine or beer, and eat nothing unclean.  For the boy shall be a nazirite for God from the womb, until the day of his death.’ ”

The woman bore a son and named him Samson, and when the boy grew up the LORD blessed him. The Spirit of the LORD came upon him for the first time.

A. Short Background on the First Reading

1. We have here the depiction of events surrounding the birth of a great and admired personage in the Old Testament, the strongman Samson. The mother of Samson could not bear a child because she was barren. An angel of the Lord came to her to announce what is truly good news: that she would soon give birth to a son. The woman readily accepted the angel’s word and with enthusiasm shared this with her husband Manoah. Though the husband’s reaction was not recorded, it seems implied that he was unable to receive this angelic proclamation with the same faith as her wife. Every disciple of the Lord is challenged today and always to follow the example of Samson’s mother, her openness and responsiveness to the Word, and to avoid the attitude of Manoah who was foolish and slow to grasp the Word of the Lord. The First Reading provides an appropriate introduction to the Gospel about the conception of John the Baptist.

2. The story of Samson’s conception and birth amazes us. It is a case of God’s miraculous intervention in the lives of his people. The mother is told not to take any wine or beer and as for Samson, “No razor shall touch his head, for the boy is to be a nazirite for God from the womb. It is he who will begin to save Israel from the power of the Philistines.” This is what it meant to be a Nazirite: a man taken by God to become his instrument in the history of humanity. In this story, the intervention of God surpasses the insurmountable human difficulty of sterility. God demonstrates that it is he who is to intervene, it is he who is to set his people free. Through Samson, God will work out a political liberation from the oppression of the Philistines. Samson will oppose the idolatry and depravity of his people. God is the God of the impossible. He surpasses the greatest difficulties because of his will to save.

B. Reflections on the First Reading

Reflection 1: Spirit-filled

Why is the story of Samson’s birth an Advent-Christmas story, too? His is one favorite story in Bible lessons for children, but specially his adult adventures in fighting. Children are fascinated by a superhero defeating enemies, beating up his foes, and in the end, dealing the final blow on his oppressors. The birth of Samson, however, clearly shows us the presence of the Holy Spirit in his personal history; he was a man filled with the Holy Spirit, just like Mary and Joseph and the other characters of the infancy narratives.

The holy Spirit raises up men and women in times of great need. Samson filled that need when people needed a liberator from the Philistines. Jesus, God’s Son, is the liberator of all people in all times and in all places. 

Who are the Spirit-filled people who are instruments of God in today’s situations of poverty and oppression? Are there politicians, economists, teachers, media men and women who allow the Spirit to move them as they serve the good of their neighbor? Let us pray for an army of men and women filled with the Spirit who will lead the Church and society today.

Reflection 2: Miracles

Do you notice the emphasis given to barren women in the Bible? They are everywhere, from the Old to the New Testament. Suspicious, though, is the absence of stress on the sterility of men. It seems that the problem is always with the women!

Faith in the God who works against barrenness is an affirmation of faith in God, worker of miracles. This God can produce fruitfulness in the midst of barrenness. Many people today contend that though they believe in God, they do not believe in miracles anymore. How can you believe in miracles when you can clone animals, produce artificial rain, and apply stem-cell solutions to even the most difficult medical problems?

Christmas is a reminder, though, that only God can save us. He is the Creator of the material world and therefore is higher than his creation. Miracles still happen, they do happen, because God is supernatural and not merely natural. If we open our eyes to the presence of the Lord, there are daily miracles, big and small, happening before our eyes.

GOSPEL: Luke 1:5-25

In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.

Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering, the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him.

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink.

He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”

Then Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute. Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home.

After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived, and she went into seclusion for five months, saying, “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.”

A. Short Background on the Gospel

1. The Gospel introduces the parents of John the Baptist. They are Zechariah and Elizabeth, righteous people but are childless and are now both advanced in years.  But the power of God breaks through all sorts of human conditions, even the most difficult and painful. As with Abraham and Sarah before them, the Lord promises that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son, to the astonishment of their family and neighbors.

Zechariah receives the announcement of this divine favor as he is fulfilling his priestly duties at the Temple. This also describes the role of John, his way of life and mission in salvation history. John will be the culmination and climax of biblical prophetic history. He will be the last of the prophets, and the direct forerunner and herald of the Messiah longed-for by Israel.

2. Just like in the First Reading, the Gospel has its focus on the acceptance of God’s message and the failure to comprehend it. Zechariah has difficulty believing the angel’s words and for this he is struck dumb.  Later, Elizabeth his wife, recognizes the hand of the Lord and rejoices that her barrenness is eradicated.

Does this not typify the situations of lives of people today? Every disciple of the Lord through all the ages waver between faith and doubt, credence and unbelief.  We are called to identify with Elizabeth’s simple but firm proclamation of faith, and to resist the urge and temptation to yield to doubt and loss of heart.

Even though people are inclined to dismiss the power of God, still God breaks through the human condition of poverty and sin. Divine intervention is fulfilled even in the midst of the strongest doubt. Let us strive to live in faith, remembering the God who will do everything for us in order to save us.

B. Reflections on the Gospel

Reflection 1: God’s Deliverance

Today the parents of the Baptist are introduced to us. Zechariah was a priest from the line of Aaron; every direct descendant of Aaron was automatically a priest, so there were many priests in Israel and there was a division of labor in the temple. Elizabeth was also from the line of Aaron; she was pure Jew since priests could not marry anyone who was not a pure descendant. 

But there was a tragedy in the family. The couple was childless. In the writings of the rabbis, among the excommunicated of Israel, the first in line was the “Jew without a wife, and the Jew with a wife, but without a child.” Sterility was ground for divorce.

We can imagine that each time Zechariah would go to the temple service, this would be his prayer, to have a child, until the vision occurred and Gabriel brought God’s promise of liberation for God’s people. To Zechariah, though, this was, first of all, God’s personal promise and fulfillment to him. He was being removed from a posture of shame to one of honor in God’s sight.

The story of Christmas is really about God’s mercy on the people who have to endure the ridicule of other men and women because of their flaws, weakness, or their poverty. If they remain faithful to the Lord, then the favor of God is not far off. It is just a matter of time and they will see the hand of God delivering them and raising them up.

Reflection 2: God’s House

One thing stands out in the giving of the angelic message: the message came to Zechariah while he was in God’s house. We all wish that God would send us a message and we know the message can occur while we are at God’s house.  But at times, there seems to be no message at all.

In the play, St. Joan of Arc, the Dauphin (France’s legitimate leader), is asking Joan why God has to send messages to her and not to the king directly. Joan replies:  “The messages come to you but you do not hear (in your heart). You pray the Angelusand make the sign of the cross but only to get it over with.” His heart and mind are not as alert and receptive as Joan’s.

Today, God’s message still comes through God’s house, the Church. As people in the Church, do we really listen to the Lord or just perform our functions and obligations? Are we truly open to God’s message or are we more comfortable with just obeying the laws? Is our membership and continued presence in the Church a matter of mere cognitive or intellectual response and not one also of the heart?

Many people, especially the young, have left the Church because of boredom, scandals, or the attraction of other sects. It is easy to explain that the Church is a complex reality of both human and divine elements. But it is also necessary to demonstrate that living and growing in the Church demands the joining of the intellectual with the affective, the laws with compassion, the traditions with commitment, the old formulas and practices with the new expressions. Only then can we truly hear God speaking in and through the Church.

Reflection 3: Need for Signs

We all need reminders and signs that God is still on the throne, that he is still powerful, that he is still faithful. In the Old Testament, the Nazirite vow was accompanied by visible signs, which showed that a person was consecrated from birth to the plan of God. We see this in John the Baptist and before him, Samson—hair uncut, refraining from liquor, abstaining from unclean food, and being filled with the Spirit. These external signs conveyed the message that these men belonged totally to the Lord and their hidden strength and power came through their absolute obedience to the Lord’s will.

We, too, need some signs, symbols, or reminders in daily life. We need to be reminded that God still holds us in wonder and he cares for us in simple and miraculous ways. These signs also show us how much we commit ourselves to God in a life of faith and dedication to him.

We wear medals, scapulars, rosaries, and other signs of faith in our bodies and put them in our properties. But we must remember to use them with the right intention and purpose. We must be convinced that they are, first of all, for our spiritual maturity and stability, not displays or fashion statements that do not mean anything. Let us ask the Lord to give us the spirit of Samson and of John the Baptist who, in living with signs, became living reminders of God to the world around them.

Reflection 4: Pray for Hope

The Gospel invites us to deepen the need for hope in our lives, and this hope evidently connected to our faith. Zechariah and Elizabeth are irreproachable people, observing the commandments and precepts of the Lord, and so they are just or righteous before God. But it seems that their lives are under the cloud of a certain disillusionment. In their lives there is a trial, a test. And how much they hope that God will set them free, but their prayers have not been answered.

They continue to be faithful and yet in their hearts, they are crushed, they have no more hope. And here comes the angel Gabriel saying to Zechariah: Your prayers are heard!  The lack of enthusiasm in Zechariah’s voice betrays his doubts, his hopelessness. How can this happen?

The angel imposes another trial, but this time a trial that heals. Zechariah will be mute until the word of the Lord is fulfilled.

Is there a trial in your life? Pray for hope. Remember that this is just a test and God will lift you up if you continue to believe and to hold on to his promises. You may not see a way. But God has a way already in store for you.

Let us renew our hope, asking to be open to the promises of the Lord. So much in our world has been resigned to egoism, to violence, to pride and jealousy. Let us hope in God and with him for the change and miracles we desire.

Reflection 5: Today’s O Antiphon

December 19: “O Root (stump) of Jesse, who stands as a sign among the people, before whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the nations shall make supplication: come to deliver us, and tarry not.”

What is a stump of wood good for? It is almost dead, useless, except for chopping and burning. However, this symbol from the plant kingdom teaches us many things about hope. Even a stump or a root brings forth a new shoot. Seemingly dead outside, there is life within!

This Christmastime, it will be good to recall the relationships we thought were dead, but later on came to surprise us with a surge of new life.  Were you reunited with a long lost friend? Was there a reconciliation with someone whom you thought was impossible to forgive? Has there been recently a letter, a text message, an FB message from a person whom you thought no longer cared? These are all cause for hope because they are like small fresh shoots on the dead brown stump of Jesse.

As Christians, we need to remember that appearance and reality are often different and so we must keep our hopes high and try to fan it into flame when it is most challenged. Death and destruction do not have the final say. God will find a way for us. In Jesus, God’s life has triumphed and will shine luminously forever.  Let us pray for what seems to be dead stumps in our life today and expect the Lord to cause a bud to sprout one day.