Saturday in the 3rd Week of Advent: Judges 13:2-7, 24-25a, Luke 1:5-25.
On the heels of yesterday’s reflection of St. Joseph’s righteousness and exemplary acceptance of God’s plan for him, today’s readings give us the stories of two other scriptural fathers, 1,100 years apart, with stunning parallels. Neither father accepts God’s word to the extent that Joseph does, although both of their sons are towering figures in bringing people to God: Samson and John the Baptist. While accentuating the true blessedness of St. Joseph, both readings underline our need to trust in the Lord as well as the impact of generational germination of the Word.
The first reading from the Book of Judges presents the origins of the near-mythological Samson, the last of the judges before the Judaic monarchy is established. Samson’s family is not particularly distinguished; we don’t know much from scripture other than his unnamed mother worked in the fields like a common Jewish woman of the time: “the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field” (Jgs 13:9). But God likes to work through the humble and lowly, doesn’t He? The readings today give us several important parallels between Samson and John the Baptist: both of their mothers were barren and older, both sets of parents were visited by an angel promising that they would become pregnant and give birth to men who would be important figures for the Lord and His work, and both fathers do some questioning before acquiescing to the angel. And then there are the parallels between the men themselves. Samson is to be brought up as a Nazirite, which means “one separated” or “one consecrated.” This was a class of people as recorded in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 6. God declares to Moses that Nazirites should not shave their hair, drink alcohol, or come in contact with corpses. Being a Nazirite was a sign of consecrating oneself to God, like an early form of voluntary commitment to a religious order. Samson’s life was filled with episodes of conquering nature or putting it to good use: slaying the lion with his bare hands, tying torches to the tails of 300 foxes to burn Philistine fields, killing 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey, etc. These actions and his God-given superhuman strength served to make Jew and Gentile alike marvel at the works of the Lord and believe more deeply in the Jewish God.
John, for his part, shares many of these characteristics. We know that he was the “voice crying out in the wilderness” and he is aligned with nature in several aspects: “John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Mk 1:6, Mt 3:4). He lives apart, much like a devout Nazirite; today, we hear the angel tell his father, Zechariah: “He will drink neither wine nor strong drink.” He is also depicted throughout Christian art history as being wild in appearance, with long, uncut hair. Since he was completely devoted to being God’s mouthpiece (see A Day of Vindication by Our God), he was as close to a Nazirite in spirit as you can get, if not formally one.
But today’s readings aren’t about Samson and John; instead, they’re about God’s announcement of these great figures to their childless, barren parents. This in itself is proof of God’s loving mercy and overflowing generosity to those who remain faithful to Him. There are many stories of God granting pregnancies to barren women in the Bible, starting with our patriarch Abraham and his wife, Sarah. In sympathy with these women who lived in a culture where birthing children, especially sons, was given such importance, we see that God responds to their feelings of inadequacy, abandonment by God, and failure. Into these hearts, yearning to feel God’s healing love, God delivers a miraculous fecundity. I am reminded of previous reflections on agricultural harvest and fertility. God’s blessings carry this same imperative: to bring forth fruits of righteousness. For Samson’s mother and John’s mother, these fruits are their sons.
All of us share in the psychological abandonment and feelings of failure of these Biblical women at some time or another in our lives. But in the End Times we now live in, we can look at their barrenness more symbolically, although God’s miraculous sowing of the seeds of righteousness is just as real. For Christians, our spiritual fruits are works of charity and the multiplication of love in the world, rather than the hope pinned on future generations (although we warmly welcome children, of course). With Mary, God gives us a turning point. He sends the Spirit to bring about Jesus in her womb, and here divinity itself becomes the answer to humanity, which has repeated its sacrifices and strivings generation after generation to no avail. As Fr. Jean Corbon writes, the time leading up to Mary “is also the time when prophetic words and cultic sacrifices are repeated again and again; nothing can do away with this repetition, which signals the grip of death, until the coming of the event that ‘once and for all’ delivers man from death” (The Wellspring of Worship, 35). Women prayed for children in the Time of Promises because they were caught in the wheel of generational futility, the “grip of death.” With Mary, the child that is born is a new being, a God and man, who establishes His Reign on earth and delivers humanity from the grip of death. No longer do we need long for children alone to prolong our lives on the planet because Christ has opened up for us life eternal!
The evangelist par excellence in recognizing this new state is St. Paul. He recognizes how the Nazirite tradition prefigured the state of being a Christian. Sanctifying ourselves to God and restraining ourselves from worldly things is now the de facto state for all. This is because of the Spirit, who descended upon Mary and whom Christ has promised will guide us throughout the End Times. Paul writes to the Galatians: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. … those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:16, 24). We are all now anointed, set apart, and sanctified for God thanks to Jesus Christ. We must live by the Spirit, and this brings us back to the idea of fruitfulness and fertility. The new fertility is one of the Spirit. Paul writes: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23a). The fruit that we bring forth into the world is God’s love! This is marked by charity and the personal attributes that Paul lists. Note that this is real fruit — it represents the true germination of the Word in our hearts and the creation of new selves and, more importantly, that new self is outwardly focused on others, generating this same love within all those we meet. We cannot deny the impact of pure charity, forgiveness, patients, and generosity on others. This is the harvest we are called to bring into the Kingdom.
Of course, we’re imperfect (thanks be to God for the sacraments of Confession and Eucharist!). Let’s return to the fathers of Samson and John. Both men reveal an imperfect reception of the Word of God delivered by the angel. First (in verses skipped by the Lectionary), Manoah reacts to his wife’s news of the angel by asking God to hear it himself: “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born” (Jgs 13:8). God sends His angel again, but once again to Manoah’s wife, and she has to run to get Manoah to meet him. We are witnessing a little frustration by Manoah that God isn’t doing things the way he wants Him to. Manoah asks the angel what they should do with the child and the angel responds a bit dismissively, “Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her” (Jgs 13:13). Like Joseph, Manoah is being asked to take a back seat here, but he’s not quite as good at accepting this as Joseph. He wants to make an offering to the angel in response to the news and asks, “What is your name, so that we may honor you when your words come true?” But the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful” (Jgs 13:17-18). While not doing anything specifically against God here, Manoah is living in a way where his actions and expectations are driven by the culture of the Jewish law: he offers the prescribed sacrifice and attempts to take control of the situation as the man of the house. Contrast this with Joseph hearing the Word of God and responding in righteousness from the heart. Both men are asked to “father” the Word of God, and Joseph clearly is more configured internally to the Word Himself than Manoah.
We see a similar circumstance with Zechariah. We hear Zechariah respond to the angel with much more challenge in his demeanor: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” This would be surprising for those who associate the trappings of piety with actual conformation to God, since he was of the priestly class and in the much-respected role of entering the sanctuary of the Lord alone to burn incense. Of course, Christ preached many times against those who appear to be living according to the law but are not transformed in their hearts, so from our perspective as Christians we should not be too surprised. Unlike the episode with Manoah, the angel is not shy about using his own name in a bit of a smack-down: “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.” How ironic that the father of the great Voice in the Wilderness would be silenced himself throughout his wife’s pregnancy! God’s plan for the announcement and coming of His Son has no room for lukewarm reception or obstacles. Zechariah, like Manoah before him and Joseph after him, must take a humble position while fathering the Word of God, and in his case, it must be an externally enforced humbling.
I’m not trying to take Manoah and Zechariah down a peg — don’t get me wrong. Both men are great figures in our faith tradition. When his tongue is loosed at the circumcision and naming of John, Zechariah gives us one of the great canticles that we chant daily at Lauds (this is the gospel reading on Christmas Eve daily mass). Their stories do, however, contrast with Joseph’s humble fathering of the Word and give us room to reflect on how we might be fathering the Word in our own lives. We all must germinate and gestate the Word in our hearts and souls; we all must meet God’s plan with humility and acceptance rather than hesitation and excuses; and we all must bring forth the fruits of the Spirit during our time here on earth.
As we remind ourselves of our Nazirite calling as Christians during this Advent time of waiting and anticipation, we might be tempted to wonder if this is worth it. After all, if the cycle of human reproduction and death ended 2,000 years ago in Christ, why does it still feel that we’re on that hamster wheel? Be comforted in the fact that this confusion over the time of Christ’s Second Coming has existed from the earliest Apostolic Age. In St. Peter’s second letter we read his exhortation to keep the faith:
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed (3:8-10).
This is the message of Advent. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, for we know neither the day nor the hour when the Lord will come in judgment. “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:14-15a).
Thank you for showing us the humanity of our great forefathers. It helps me understand my own failings can still lead to a life of peace with God.