Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)

The letter to the Romans begins and ends in unusual ways for Paul.

December 18, 2011

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 16:25-27

The letter to the Romans begins and ends in unusual ways for Paul.

That the letter and the community held special significance for him is clear. In the opening chapter (in fact the opening verse!) we already have an extended greeting in which Paul is laying claim to and asserting his status as “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1).

Then follows a long explanation of his mission and the gospel he wishes to preach in their midst. Now, at the end of the letter, after having preached that Gospel in letter form rather than in person, Paul reasserts his position and authority of “my gospel.” This conclusion runs from 15:33 through the designated verses for this Sunday. It contains a commendation, an extensive greeting list, two benedictions and the doxology.

For the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we read only the doxology. It appears as if Paul has taken a doxology that may have been known to the communities of faith he was familiar with, a doxology perhaps taken directly from their worship: “To God [to the only wise God], through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever! Amen!” As all classic doxologies, this blessing of God serves to frame everything that has gone before (admonitions, prayers, thanksgivings, etc.). The doxologies name the one who is the source of all blessing, of all good things, the source of the work of the gospel. Paul may use the personal possessive (my gospel) but it is clearly his only through Jesus Christ, through the One who reveals the mystery.

Another point however needs to be noted concerning this reference to “my gospel.” There were many gospels abounding in first century churches. Paul warns about them in almost all of his letters. Of course, not all of them served the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Many of them lead people into error, confusing the eternal God who revealed the mystery with gods of culture. Paul’s gospel however stands in the tradition of the prophetic writings. It is rooted in the promise found in the Old Testament and which is meant not only for the Jewish people but for all Gentiles, for all the nations.

These two references — to the eternal God and to the prophetic writings — establish the community of faith in a tradition that is defined by one greater than itself and in a history broader than their own. In other words, the community is never defined simply by its own parameters but by God whose promise extends over time and through the lives of many peoples. The local community is always, in some ways, a global community.

We read this doxology on the last Sunday of Advent. To what purpose? The lectionary has turned now, on this day, from an eschatological waiting to the more imminent announcement and arrival of the Christ Child. The Gospel of Luke relates the announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary and then together with Mary, we sing the reversals of the gospel in the Magnificat. We hear this annunciation as the revelation of the mystery that has been kept secret through the ages. We come to the moment, we might say, to the beginning of this revelation that brings together the hopes of the prophets, the longing of the law and the yearning of all humanity. The history of salvation begins to unfold before the community in full splendor and will finally be realized in a meal in which this mystery is given, literally distributed to the community.

The revelation of God’s mystery to all (Jews and Gentiles) is “to bring about the obedience of faith.” The obedience of faith is a central theme in Romans. With this notion of obedience, Paul is drawing all peoples into the covenant, into God’s own revelation of the secret. Just as Adam’s disobedience brought about condemnation and death to all humanity so the obedience of the second or last Adam, Jesus Christ, implies the obedience and steadfastness of all people. Christ’s obedience brings righteous and life (Romans 5:9-10).

We are not to read this “obedience of faith” as simply fulfilling the law, as if through Christ, humanity is now able to accomplish the Law of Moses without impediment. Paul has shown throughout the letter to the Romans that the tension of disobedience/obedience refers not to the Law of Moses (for then it would apply only to the Jews) but to the law that is deep within all of creation. The “obedience” here has a cosmic slant. The obedience of Christ does not just abolish/fulfill the Law of Moses, it instigated, and it initiates the new creation. The restoration prayed for in the psalms of the preceding Sundays of Advent is now completed. Adam (humanity) is restored through Jesus Christ. God’s intention in creation is made manifest: through this gift of faith, a new people witness to God’s intent of good-will, immeasurable mercy and eternal life towards all.

The gift of faith that comes to humanity through the obedience of Christ, the righteousness that is the constitutive element of the new people, the new creation cannot be confined to merely a forensic metaphor. It is not simply (though importantly!) the forgiveness of sins, the acquittal spoken. The obedience of faith given in Christ and now continually spoken and distributed in the community for all, this obedience signifies the life that all are called into a relationship in God and with all creation. The image of God has been restored and believers now live in that image, witnessing and inviting all into this covenantal relationship.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, as even the readings make a turn to Christ’s birth in a manger, Paul’s doxology in Romans sings a counter-motif. The obedience of faith gestures towards the cross. The expectation and yearning of Advent for reconciliation and a restored humanity begins, yes, at the manger but is fully accomplished at the cross and given in a meal.