Daughter of Sion: sermon on the second Sunday of Advent

“Christ Jesus was minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers.”

What does St Paul mean by those words from the Epistle to the Romans? “Christ Jesus was minister of the circumcision.” He is referring to the fact that our Lord, in His earthly ministry, confined Himself almost entirely to working within the Holy Land, and speaking to His fellow Jews. There were occasional exceptions, as when He went into the region of Phoenicia, and freed a Canaanite woman’s daughter from a devil, and also when He healed the servant of the Roman centurion. But apart from those cases, our Lord, although He is the Redeemer of the whole world, and gave His life for all mankind, nevertheless limited Himself to the people and land of Israel.

Now, why was that? St Paul gives us the answer: “To confirm the promises made unto the fathers.” Which promises? God promised in the Old Testament that He would send a Saviour to the people of Israel, so that Israel might become a blessing for the world. I sometimes think that our Lord might well have wished to go in person to preach to the gentiles. After all, if the charity of St Therese of Lisieux made her feel like she wanted to go and be a missionary everywhere on earth, even though she knew that this was not her cloistered vocation, then how could the incomparably greater charity of the Heart of Jesus, the source of all the graces of the saints, not have inclined Him to go to the ends of the earth to preach the gospel? But no, He knew that this was not the Father’s will for Him. The Jewish people had been specially chosen centuries before — in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and to honour this choice, Christ would go only to them; He would preach to the other nations only after His Resurrection, and then by means of the apostles.

We know from the gospels that the response that the people of Israel gave to Him was mixed. “To as many as believed in him,” says St John, “he gave power to be made children of God.” That is, He gave them access to the sacrament of baptism, by which we are adopted by God. And those people of course would have been nearly all Jews. Yet, thinking of the nation as a whole, St John can summarise our Lord’s career by saying: “His own received him not.” What you might call official Israel, as represented by Annas, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, received Him not. And St John also gives us the reason for this rejection, “Whoever does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, that his works may not be reproved.” 

So, what are we to say — that God’s choice of Israel was more a failure than a success? We might be tempted to think so, if we didn’t remember that there was one person in Israel whose faith more than compensated for the unbelief of the country’s official representatives. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah had spoken of this person, by using the image of a bride adorned for her husband. He makes her say, “My soul shall be joyful in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, as a bride adorned with her jewels.”That prophecy was fulfilled at the Incarnation, by the Blessed Virgin Mary. When the angel Gabriel greeted her with the words, “Hail, full of grace,” he was recognising her, we could say, as true Israel: Israel as she should have been, Israel as she had existed in the plan of God in the beginning, adorned with virtues, as with jewels. And when, a little later, Mary visited Elizabeth and said, “My soul magnifies the Lord”, she is offering to the Blessed Trinity a praise that is so perfect that it proves to God, so to speak, that His choice of Israel was not it vain, that it had all been worthwhile, despite the infidelity of so many others.

Soon will be the feast of the Immaculate Conception. On that day, we celebrate Mary as the true daughter of Sion, who alone was able perfectly to welcome the Lord to His own world and to His own people, since she alone had never even for a moment been under the dominion of the devil. But we can ask her also to pray for those who are still her brothers and sisters according to the flesh; for the Jewish people, that they may come to believe in Jesus Christ, and know that He has indeed fulfilled the promises made to their fathers.