Sunday, December 22, 2013

Homily for the Christmas Novena

Homily for the
Christmas Novena
Prophecies:  Psalm 72: 6-7, 11
Dec. 22, 2013
Provincial House, New Rochelle

The 5th of the 7 Old Testament prophecies that we chant each evening of the Christmas novena reads, in our Salesian translation:  “As dew gently falling upon a fleece shall he descend; in the days of the Lord shall righteousness again prevail with blessings of peace abounding; and in homage shall all the kings and princes of the land, all the nations serve and adore him” (Ps 72: 6-7, 11).[1]

The revised Roman Missal’s Second Eucharistic Prayer has drawn our attention to the falling of dew in the invocation of the Holy Spirit over the bread and wine.

But in the case of our prophecy in the novena liturgy, the reference to dew turns out to be a mistaken translation; for the Latin word is pluvia, “rain.”  That particular prophetic text is taken verbatim from 3 verses of Psalm 72.

Furthermore, the verse in question is usually rendered, “He shall be like rain coming down on the meadow” (NAB), or “upon the mown grass” (RSV).  One commentary, while saying that such is the usual translation, notes that the Hebrew word does generally mean “fleece,” and the verse may be an allusion to the story of Gideon—which is certainly what our novena translation sounds like.

Gideon and the fleece
by Maarten van Heemskerck 
You’ll recall that Gideon, trying to verify that it truly was God commanding him to lead an uprising against the Midianites, asked for a sign:  1st, that a fleece he spread out on the threshing floor would be wet with dew in the morning while all the ground was dry, and the following nite—it really sounds like Gideon was trying desperately to get out of this leadership role—he asked that the ground be wet and the fleece alone dry.

The image is apt for the coming of the Messiah.  As dew falls from the air, the Messiah descends from heaven, silently and unseen.  His human origin is completely unseen and insensible, known only from the angel’s announcement.  His birth takes place almost as secretly, witnessed, we presume, by Mary, Joseph, and whatever animals might have been in the room where the holy couple were lodged that nite; and soon after, by the shepherds who, alone, receive the glorious angelic announcement.  But there’s nothing typical of a royal birth—witness the hoopla last July over Prince George’s arrival in London.  But our Messiah comes quietly and humbly, not a typical prince, not with the kind of salvation for which the Jewish people longed from the house of David.

“Like dew gently falling upon a fleece” is an apt metaphor, as well, for the Lord’s coming in the waters of Baptism—the water seen and felt, but the Lord coming gently and quietly and invisibly, but powerfully.

To take Psalm 72 as we have it:  its origin may have lain in some kind of coronation rite for the kings of Judah; it’s interpreted generally as a messianic psalm, one that speaks of the future glorious reign of God’s Anointed.  He will bring peace and justice to the earth, particularly to the poor and the afflicted.  He’ll bring prosperity to his people—not only Israel but all the nations of the earth.

The Good Shepherd
by James Powell
“He shall be like rain coming down on the meadow, like showers watering the earth,” the psalm reads.  “On the meadow” sounds better than “on the mown grass,” for meadow grass would have been mown, I think, for hay; and rain upon the hay is not a good thing.  But the meadows need rain to flourish, to become and remain healthy pasture for the flocks and herds—good green grass and fresh water.  “Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose” (Ps 23:2 Grail).  So the Messiah will see that his flock, his people, is well nourished.

“Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace,” reads the prophecy in literal translation, the psalm adding “till the moon be no more.”  We look to the Messiah to bring genuine justice to the earth, blessings to all those whom the powers of the earth usually oppress—as news reminds us daily.  If everyone truly imitated the Messiah, truly sought to live justly, peace would of course follow, the “blessings of peace abounding.”  The whole social teaching of the Church is an attempt to lead us in this direction:  to live out justice, fairness, equity in society, in the name of the Gospel, in the name of the Messiah.  Our particular consecrated lives are dedicated to living the Gospel in our relations with one another, and so enjoying the peace that comes from Christ.

The final verse of this one prophecy that we sang, still from Psalm 72, speaks of “all kings paying him homage, all nations serving him.”  God’s Anointed shall be king of all nations.  We call Jesus the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, and we celebrate his universal kingship on the last Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Yet his kingdom is far from universal.  Only one third of the humanity even calls itself Christian, and of course of that one third, we may ask how many are really trying to live under the rule of Jesus.  There are, then, 2 missions here for us:  1st, to renew our own submission to this King, daily; to continue our own process of Christian conversion; 2d, to do what we can to make Jesus known, to preach the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it, to preach it again to those who haven’t believed it, to preach it again to those who acknowledge Jesus but don’t live like it.

        [1] Latin text: Descendet Dominus sicut pluvial in vellus, orietur in diebus eius iustitia et abundantia pacis, et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae, omnes gentes servient ei.

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