Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, all our readings this week-end speak about what God is going to do.
David, you heard, planned to build a temple for the Lord:
When the LORD had given King David 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.”
However, it was God Who would build the temple He wanted when the time was right, therefore, He sent Nathan back to David with this message:
Go, tell My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Should you build Me a house to dwell in? 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 kingdom and your house shall endure forever before Me.’
In those words there is a most important point for us to recognize and appreciate: whatever good work we do for God is essentially dependent upon the intention we have in mind when doing it; but, even when our work and our intention are both good, the attitude in which we do it can be of great importance. David was adopting a somewhat condescending attitude to God, therefore the Lord answered him:
Should you build Me a house to dwell in?
God sensed a trace of that original pride which had led to Adam and Eve’s disregarding of God’s authority and providence, in David’s attitude, and any trace whatsoever of that original catastrophic evil left uncorrected would quickly sour David’s present zeal for the glory of Israel’s God and gratitude for His goodness; therefore, the prophet was instructed to make it clear to David just Who was leading and guiding, protecting and saving.
David subsequently lived long enough before God to gladly look forward, in his restored humility and hope, to prepare for the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise through his son Solomon, who did, indeed, eventually build an earthly Temple for the Lord in Jerusalem. However, that first Temple would be destroyed by the Babylonians after some 350 years and was not replaced until a second and truly splendid Temple was later built by the wicked King Herod, who produced a wonderful structure which amazed the world of that time but was in no way pleasing to God in so far as it had been built with the wrong intention, not indeed for God’s glory -- as with David and Solomon before -- but for the personal glory of Herod and the renown of his kingdom under the watchful eyes of his imperial overlords in Rome. And fittingly enough, it was the Romans who -- as Jesus foretold -- not only destroyed, but indeed totally obliterated, that symbol of Herod’s glory before one hundred years had passed.
And so, we can see that God’s word to David by the prophet Nathan was looking over and beyond Solomon, for it envisaged Jesus Himself Whose risen, glorious, Body would become the ultimate Temple of God among men: a temple not built by human hands, a Temple wherein Jews and Gentiles without distinction would have access to the Father by the one Most Holy Spirit:
The Jews said to Him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking about the Temple of His body. (John 2:18-21)
Consequently, our Gospel was all about God choosing when (in the fullness of time), by Whom (His own Son), and through whom (the virgin Mary of Nazareth), salvation would ultimately be offered to the human race:
The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!’ 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 favour 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 the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.’
It is God alone Who gives salvation and works wonders. However, we are not excluded from His purposes, indeed, we are graciously called – in Jesus -- to share in and contribute to His work. Although the Lord did not allow David himself to build the Temple in Jerusalem, his desire to do so was most pleasing to Him, and therefore He allowed him to help his son’s preparations, and rewarded David himself with great blessings, the greatest of which being that He, the Lord, would build David a house, and from that house the Messiah Himself, Israel’s supreme King, would eventually come.
Now Mary had always wanted to give her utmost for the God of Israel, and therefore she had longed to devote herself completely by offering her virginity to Him. However, such a gesture was almost inconceivable among the Jewish people who held marriage and childbirth in such great honour, but it was the only way Mary could think of that would give full expression to her consuming desire to belong entirely to, and to glorify totally, Israel’s God. Therefore, she said in response to the angel Gabriel’s good news:
How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?
Here, as in the case of David, her desire itself was most pleasing to God, and it would be most sublimely fulfilled in the way God wanted: Mary could, indeed, remain a virgin; notwithstanding that, she would bear a child, God’s Child, the very Son of God.
We find this pattern so often among the great saints, People of God: Francis of Assisi longed to be a martyr for Christ, he even went to preach Christ among the Muslims. Though God had His own plans for Francis, He did make him great and He even gave him the signs of Jesus’ own martyrdom: the stigmata! Again, St. Therese of Lisieux most ardently desired to become a martyr, or else a missionary; indeed, she did not know how to satisfy her manifold and ardent desires for God’s glory. God, however, wanted her in the solitude of an enclosed convent where she was to serve Him with whole-hearted love in each and every one of the minutely regulated, and very ordinary, details of her life as a nun. For all that, He did love and respect her ardent desires, as is shown by the fact that He had her proclaimed as the heavenly patroness of all those living, working, and dying in the mission fields of Mother Church today.
My dear people, it is a fact that God alone does the work of salvation, for to Him alone is the glory and power. Nonetheless, as I have just said, He actually wills us to be associated in the work His own dear Son accomplished in His human flesh and blood, to the extent that even the bread and wine we offer Him at daily Mass must be, and must be declared to be, made by human hands. And God does not use human beings like tools; for, in Jesus, we are called to co-operate with Him as true children trying to glorify their Father, and that is the attitude we should always have as we work to do His will for His glory; and it is through such work that we are enabled to receive, by the Holy Spirit, a personal share -- in Jesus -- of God’s infinite holiness and eternal blessedness.
Since, in the work of God, there is absolutely nothing any of us can do of ourselves, therefore, none of us can excuse ourselves by complaining that we are less talented than others. Whereas our natural physical powers and mental abilities are individual and strictly limited, our spirit, on the other hand, is capable of being tuned into the infinity of God Himself, but this can only come about, if we diligently and perseveringly exercise our freedom -- won for us by Jesus -- to love good and reject evil.
The true criterion for a faithful servant of God is, therefore, the nature and the depth of that person’s desires and intentions. What do you desire most sincerely and, ultimately, above all else? Do you, in all truth, want to make something of your life with and for God, to serve Him faithfully and supremely? Do you want with most sincere desire to become a true Child of God in Jesus? If you can say “Yes” to such questions, and if you can keep on aspiring to serve Him even though you may think you see little of worth in your life … if you will keep on telling God of your desire even though He never seems to hear you, then you will indeed be used by Him for His purposes -- be they secret or manifest -- and you will become a disciple after Jesus’ own most sacred heart, and in Him, a true child of the heavenly Father.
Of course, that is not easily done nor can it done quickly, it is a life-time’s work. Today people expect to see results come post-haste: that is part of the character of modern Western society; and when, in the spiritual life, things do not seem, are not seen, to come quickly, the temptation for many is to give up the attempt to live a truly religious life. The advantages resulting from sin in the world are more easily, quickly, and intensely, experienced than the blessings accruing to us through devotion to God and constancy in the Faith; and consequently, though the wages of sin are ultimately pernicious, their passing pleasures can cloud over God’s eternal and sublime blessings for those who prefer the present delights of earthly solicitation to God’s promise of eternal fulfilment in Jesus, as beloved children of His in heaven.
There are other ways of succumbing to sin and the world, however, than by openly falling away from the practice of the Faith. Some, yielding to pride, try, by subtle or by blatant means, to make themselves appear holy, to put on for themselves what they cannot wait to receive from God, seeking to establish a reputation in the sight of men rather than humbly persevering before God Who might seem to be ignoring them. Those, however, whose mind is centred on God, though they may, at times, be made painfully aware of their own nothingness, do not become thereby downcast or disheartened, precisely because their mind is always occupied with desires, intentions, for His good-pleasure and glory, and they are, consequently, always looking forward and hoping in Him rather than despairing of themselves.
People of God, our readings today reveal to us something of the secret of Christmas joy and peace. Let us welcome Jesus anew into our lives this Christmas; let us seek to serve Him, not condescendingly, but humbly as King David needed to be taught: allowing Him to guide and rule not only our intentions but also our attitude in life. Mary, our Mother, urges and encourages us to follow her own most perfect example in our Gospel reading: by giving herself wholeheartedly to God’s intentions for her, abandoning worries about herself and her standing before men, and in her attitude before God, as she explained in her response to the angel He had sent her:
Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord! May it be done to me according to your word.
Than that, there is no surer way to experience the unique quality of Christian, Christmas, joy, which derives from a divine fulfilment of our human potential: a joy that bathes us in a uniquely peaceful and soul-satisfying truth, through our Spirit-blessed human fellowship with Jesus our Brother, and in Him as faith-committed disciples of the heavenly Father’s only-begotten Son, sent to an alienated world for the salvation of all those of good will, destined and called to become, in Him, members of God the Father’s family in heaven.