In today’s readings, the focus clearly shifts from Jesus’ coming at the end of time to his first coming, his birth into time.
First is Micah 5:1-4a. This was traditionally understood as a messianic prophecy. In the gospel of Matthew, when the Magi arrive and ask King Herod about the whereabouts of the newborn king, he consults the chief priests and scribes who say the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, citing Micah 5:1. In John 7:40-42 there is a discussion about whether Jesus might be the prophet or the Messiah. Some people say he can’t be the Messiah because scripture says the Messiah is of David’s family and comes from Bethlehem.
Not only does this passage say that the Messiah comes from Bethlehem, it says his origin is from of old, which we can read in the light of his eternal existence with the Father and the Holy Spirit. It speaks of his mother and is birth, which we commemorate at Christmas. It describes him as a ruler and a shepherd for his people. Shepherd of Israel can be used as a title of God — as in Psalms 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and 80:2, “Shepherd of Israel, listen, guide of the flock of Joseph.” So we can take this as at least suggesting the divinity of the Messiah.
Two of the things he does are to bring back his strayed kindred to Israel and to be peace. We could read the former as referring to Jews of the diaspora or, in light of the promise that his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth, to the spread of the kingdom to the Gentiles. With the promise of peace, we are in the”already, but not yet” of the present era. We are already saved, but our salvation is not yet completed; the kingdom of God is here, within us and among us, but not yet fully established. “He shall be peace.” he is the world’s peace, but that peace doesn’t yet reign in all hearts. Our duty is to extend it in whatever ways we can.
In the Responsorial Psalm — verses from Psalm 80 — we begin with the verse I quoted above and pray, in vv. 3, 15-16, and 18-19, for the coming of the Messiah, “the man at [God’s] right hand.”* Our response is the refrain in verses 4, 8, and 20, including the words, “let your face shine upon us,” which recall the words of blessing given to Aaron to bless the Israelites: Numbers 6:24-26.
*In the creed, we say that Jesus has ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.
The second reading — Hebrews 10:5-10 — is related to the other readings in a way similar to the relation of John 1:18 to Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives. Like our first reading and gospel, Matthew and Luke tell of events in time. Hebrews takes a view from outside time as it tells of Jesus’ coming into the world, as does the gospel of John. The author uses the Septuagint text of Psalm 40:7-9 to express the mind of Jesus as he comes into the world to do the Father’s will. His perfect obedience to the Father is an essential element in making his sacrifice effective for the salvation of the world. He does this in the body which God has prepared for him in the womb of the Virgin Mary through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
Just as John 1:17 says “[W]hile the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” in Hebrews 10:9 we read, “He takes away the first to establish the second.” This raises the question, what is “the first” that is taken away “to establish the second;” and what is “the second?” In context, the first is the sacrifices “offered according to the law,” and the second Jesus’ doing God’s will by offering his body and blood “once for all.” For many centuries, there was a theory called “supersessionism” which held that God’s covenant with Israel had been superseded by a new covenant, with Christians. But Jeremiah 31:31-34, quoted in Hebrews 10:16-17, says God will make a new covenant “with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” So the new covenant does not exclude the Jews, it is made with the Jews; and the Gentiles, as Paul says, (Romans 11) are grafted into God’s people. This is a point which has become clear with the Second Vatican Council, but it is one which we are still striving to understand and express adequately: Jesus and Christianity do not represent a rupture with Judaism but are in continuity with it.
With the gospel — Luke 1:39-45 — we return to a view from within time. The angel Gabriel has told Mary that she will be the mother of the savior who will have the throne of David forever: the Messiah. The sign that this is true is that her old kinswoman Elizabeth has conceived a child (John the Baptist). So today we hear of the Visitation. Mary goes to Elizabeth. John, still in his mother’s womb, recognizes Jesus in his mother’s womb and rejoices. For her part, Elizabeth expresses the meaning of Mary’s motherhood, as it is revealed to her by the Holy Spirit: Mar and her child are blessed; Mary’s unborn child is Elizabeth’s Lord; Mary’s faith makes her blessed.
Today’s scriptures present several points for us to consider. God has a plan for our salvation, but he does not do everything instantaneously. He used the events of many centuries to prepare Israel for the birth of the Messiah, and now he takes the necessary time to prepare the world for the Messiah’s return. He is working to perfect us. Just as Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and John were obedient to God’s will, so should we seek to do God’s will in our lives to be instruments of his peace.
Edited to add: Another possibility with respect to Hebrews 10:9, in the wider context of the letter, is that the author is thinking of the priesthood of Jesus which replaces the Levitical priesthood. The author goes to great lengths to show not only that the sacrifice of Jesus is superior to the sacrifices under the Law, but also that his priesthood is superior.