Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Advent
Are we calculators or cooperators?
The two passages in today’s liturgy, from Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke, are very closely associated with Christmas—and for good reason. The passage from Isaiah speaks about a child born to a virgin and to be named Emmanuel, while the passage from Luke is the Annunciation. No doubt they were chosen to be read together because Christians have long seen the connection.
But I want to call attention to a different relationship between the passages, a contrast rather than a prophetic correspondence.
Let’s focus for a moment on the two principal characters: Ahaz, the king of Judea, and Mary, a previously insignificant young woman in a small rural town in northern Israel. At least in the moments they are presented to us in these passages, they are at opposite poles in society, and more importantly, they could not be more opposite in faith.
Despite his role as king, Ahaz was a faithless and wicked man. Then (about 700 years before the birth of Jesus), as now, Judea was a troubled neighborhood and Ahaz found himself threatened with war by powerful enemies. The prophet urged him to trust Yahweh and offered to produce a sign of Yahweh’s power and fidelity. But Ahaz refused. He calculated that it would be better to adopt the religion of his neighbors and to align himself with a powerful emperor to the north in order to defeat his enemies. He even sacrificed his own son to the pagan gods. But things did not turn out well.
But Mary is so different. The angel (no mere prophet) greets her with respect and even reverence. He offers no sign, as did Isaiah to Ahaz, but simply tells her she will have a son who will succeed to the throne of David—a staggering claim. She wonders how this can be but quietly accepts, not calculating at all the costs and benefits.
For Christians, this is the most momentous choice in history. Mary bravely chooses to be a cooperator and to trust that all will be well. Ahaz calculates carefully and out of fear but cannot escape disaster.
With Mary as a model, we are reminded in Advent that God invites cooperation and makes that cooperation fruitful in ways that defy calculation.
Robert G. Kennedy, Professor and Chair, Department of Catholic Studies