Posted December 19, 2020
4th Sunday of Advent, Yr B
The angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1: 26-38).
But what would Mary have understood by ‘Messiah’? The short answer to that is: we don’t know. To suppose that when the angel addressed her she already understood the word Messiah more or less as Christians later came to understand that word in the light of Jesus’ life and death, seems to me unlikely, though many Christians prefer to think that way, and far be it from me to disturb them in their thinking.
A more common answer is that Mary would have understood Messiah as her Jewish contemporaries understood the term. The problem with that answer is that we cannot be sure how her Jewish contemporaries did understand the term. Or rather, there was a variety of ideas among them, most of them pretty vague. That Messiah would do wonderful things, yes, certainly, that was agreed. That Messiah would come in the last days and usher in the Kingdom of God, yes, there was fairly wide agreement about that. But after that, Jews used their imagination, and you only have to sample the literature of the period to see that that imagination knew no bounds.
It is often said that most Jews in Jesus’ time expected a military and political Messiah who would put an end to Roman rule in Palestine and restore the ancient kingdom of King David. It was a nationalist dream, if you like. Maybe that was the sense in which St Peter understood Messiah at Caesarea Philippi, when he blurted out to Jesus ‘You are the Messiah!’ and moments later rebuked Jesus for talking about suffering and rejection, whereupon Jesus said to him: ‘Get behind me, Satan, for your way of thinking is man’s way of thinking, not God’s.’ But it is not correct to say that the military and political understanding of Messiah was the only one current in Jesus’ time. It was certainly a popular one, but there were other, more spiritual, interpretations alongside it. And it is unlikely that St Peter had military and political ambitions. Most fishermen don’t. Probably it was just that St Peter wanted Jesus to be a glamorous, charismatic type of Messiah, and that’s why Jesus rebuked him, for Jesus knew that there was to be no Jesus Christ Superstar except after torment and degradation. St Paul got it right, admittedly with hindsight, when he told the Philippians: ‘Jesus was obedient unto death, even death on a cross: Therefore God has superexalted him.’
The truth is that Jews in Jesus’ time (including St Peter) tended to fashion the future Messiah in their own image and likeness. You expected the Messiah of your dreams, and dreams vary from one group to the next, even from one individual to the next. The same applies to Jews nowadays. And the same applies to Christians as well. And the same applies to all human beings. Yes, all human beings. For even if it is only in the Judeo-Christian tradition that the expectation of a Messiah is spelt out in so many words, the fact is that some form of messianism is innate in the human heart. We all yearn for a hero whom we can admire, in whom we can repose our hopes; a powerful figure to free us, or at least to distract us, from ourselves: a focus for our own aspirations, be those aspirations noble or perverse. What was the Nazi phenomenon if not the Messiah syndrome at its most demonic? What is today’s celebrity culture, if not the Messiah syndrome at its most inane?
And what of our faith in Jesus? Is it not the Messiah syndrome at its most sublime? Yes, it is. But that is not to say that our understanding of Jesus Messiah is necessarily altogether divine ‒ altogether how God understands him. We have already heard Jesus saying to St Peter in St Mark’s Gospel, moments after St Peter had professed him to be the Messiah: ‘Get behind me Satan, for your way thinking is not God’s way of thinking, but man’s.’ So, it is possible to confess Jesus as Messiah and still have a mindset that is far removed from God. The whole of St Mark’s Gospel is about Jesus’ disciples being blind to God’s way of thinking about the Messiah, or even resisting it.
Ask yourself whether your way of thinking about Jesus Messiah is God’s way of thinking and not a mere ego-trip devilishly disguised. Sometimes the Messiah proposed to us asks of us such an adjustment of values, such a change in conduct, that we dodge it to construct one that is more congenial. Pray that it is God’s Messiah, and not your own messianic ego, that penetrates the depths of your soul. Constantly examine your heart to make sure that your religion is not a mask for falsehood or self-indulgence, or a means of hallowing spurious values, of boosting ideologies that come not from God but from elsewhere.
To return to the question I asked at the beginning: What did Mary understand by Messiah when the angel announced to her that she was to be the mother of the Messiah? Even after all that, it’s difficult to say. There must have been at least a momentary temptation for her to think along the lines of St Peter at Caesarea Philippi. Even when you are immaculate, you are allowed just a momentary flicker of a temptation to construct your own Messiah, though of course, being immaculate, you don’t succumb. Instead, she said: ‘Be it done unto me according to your word.’ I like to think that she added, under her breath: ‘Whatever that may mean!’ For her surrender was unconditional, and if she did not fully understand Messiah, she fully understood that the Messiah God gives may not be our kind of Messiah: and she embraced that with all her heart. Let us ask God for a heart that is so pure that the Messiah whom God himself has fashioned for us will find a loving welcome in it this Christmas and throughout our lives.
Fr Tom Deidun