Some context for our 4th Sunday of Advent and for our Epistle reading are in order.
The 4th Sunday of Advent originally did not have a Roman Station church because of the linkage between Ember Saturday and Sunday. Eventually, to bring the Sunday into harmony with other great Sundays it gained a Station at the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles.
The 4th Sunday of Advent arrives on the heels of Ember Saturday with its preceding vigil readings and meditations in the night. Ember Saturday was in the ancient Church of Rome the day for priestly ordinations at St. Peter’s in the Vatican, the ceremonies of which lasted into Sunday morning. They took things seriously back then. In a sense, this Sunday is an extension of the Ember Day.
The Sunday Mass texts can be seen as a summation of our Advent preparation with the three great figures whom the Church chose to accompany us as we approach the arriving Lord. In the first chant of the Mass, the Introit, we hear the Prophet Isaiah cry out, “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness (Hebrew sedeq – righteousness, justice); let the earth open, that salvation [Hebrew yêsha – “deliverance, salvation”; Latin Vulgate salvator – “a savior” ] may sprout forth”. The Vulgate personifies both the justice of God, justice being “the just one”, and the saving action of God, “savior”, which is what we sing in the Introit and the characteristic Advent Antiphon from Isaiah 45: Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant iustum.
The first verse from Isaiah 45 is humble and gentle, invoking the tender shoot as it first appears above the soil. The psalm verse, however, is lofty and magnificent, prompting our thoughts of the glorious Coming of Christ: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork”. Remember that the use of a verse in a chant like an Introit should provoke you to check out the surrounding verses: Ps 19:1-6:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice[a] goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and there is nothing hid from its heat.
During Advent, in the Divine Office and Mass Isaiah has been urging us to make ready. In the Gospel this Sunday we hear the next great admonitory figure, “The Voice” heralding “The Word”, St. John the Baptist take up the messianic message of Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” This is a good point of reflection before Christmas. The prophets Isaiah and John say that “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth” (Luke 3). When the Lord comes at the end, He will come by the straight and smooth path.
If you haven’t done your best to straighten your path for the Lord’s Coming (in all ways that He comes) then He will do the straightening and that might not be pleasant.
The next great guide of Advent is the Blessed Virgin herself, who enters with the Offertory’s “Hail, full of grace”. By the Offertory we have come with Mary to the altar of Sacrifice, as she went from the wood of the crib to the wood of the Cross. She and Isaiah and John have brought us from the beginning of Advent to the threshold of the celebration of the Nativity and preparation for the end of the world in fire with judgement.
Now that we are at the altar, let’s now go back to the Epistle which hearkens to the ancient Roman Church and the ordination of priests on Ember Saturday/Sunday. The text from 1 Corinthians 4 recalls these ordinations in its language about “dispensers/stewards of the mysteries”.
More context. The Corinthians were somewhat obstreperous and divided. It seems they were passing judgment on those of the fledgling hierarchy. In 1 Cor 3 Paul wrote about their divisions and how some pitted Paul against a certain Apollos who had gained followers. Paul describes how one person might plant (Paul) and another water (Apollos), but only God gives the growth.
In chapter 3 Paul uses apocalyptic fire imagery. Paul is dealing with scandals amongst the Corinthians, which they had not dealt with effectively. The pagan patroness of Corinth was Aphrodite, interlaced with the Eastern goddess Astarte. In that temple there was ritual prostitution on an industrial scale. Ritual prostitution inevitably arose where there was female “priesthood”. Corinth had a bad rep and a morally corrosive environment. For example, in the Christian community there was someone living in an openly incestuous relationship with his widowed stepmother (1 Cor 5:1-2).
In 1 Cor 3:13-15, just before Sunday’s reading Paul lets them have it.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
What is this testing and saving fire Paul is talking about? It can’t be the fire of Hell, because that punishes but doesn’t test. It can’t be the fire of Purgatory, because it purifies rather than tests. The testing fire is surely the fire of judgment that tries men and reveals their deeds and interior life. The fire imagery on the 4th Sunday of Advent, underscores that this season of penitential joy is a preparation for Second Coming, the return of the Just Judge.
In chapter 4, in our reading, he defends his authority in terms of being “a servant (hyperétes) and steward (oikonómos) of the mysteries of God”. Paul is not to be judged by anyone other than God at the time when He comes.
Note that use of “mysteries”, which are certainly the sacraments of the early Church which we have today. Especially baptism, Eucharist, and priestly ordination (lay on of hands). In Ephesians 5 Paul describes how all the mysteries flow from the Cross… now, the Sacrificial altar. In our liturgical language, our orations in the Latin Church, “mystery” is usually interchangeable with “sacrament”. In the ancient Greek and Latin Churches, there was a lack of technical vocabulary to express what was unfolding as the Apostolic Rule of Faith was being handed down and faithfully contemplated, fought over, and elaborated, not with artificial substantive change but with an organic deepening of understanding. The early teachers and leaders borrowed vocabulary from Greek and Roman philosophy and other spheres. When it was time to explicate in Latin what was developing in Greek about “mystery… mystérion” the military term “sacramentum” was adopted. The history of this and its meaning is quite complicated. Those who want to dig into it would do well to consult the voice “sacramentum” in the Augustinus Lexicon. Suffice to say that, during Mass, when we hear “mystery”, we can make a connecting with our sacraments and their celebration, particularly of the Eucharist.
As a “servant and dispenser of the mysteries” (and in the ancient Roman Church they were ordained “yesterday” on the Saturday before this Sunday) Paul is not to be judged by the Corinthians.
To keep this short, our Epistle pericope for this Sunday reminds us of the antiquity of our traditional lectionary, because its choice by Holy Church for its use goes back to the days when in Rome there were vigils and ordinations of priests in ceremonies that embraced Ember Saturday and this Sunday. Therefore, it behooves us on this Sunday to remember priests. Like Paul they are the “stewards” the “dispensers” of the “mysteries”, the sacraments and their celebration. Priests themselves should be reminded in this reading that they are not the “master” or the “misers” of the mysteries. They must be humble in their celebrations, saying accurately and carefully the black words in the rites and acting precisely and reverently according to the red words in the books, the rubrics. They must be generous and ready to do their priestly part in the administration of the sacraments, with generosity of prompt time and effort as well as zeal in providing for devotions and sacramentals which lead people to a fuller, and more actively conscious participation in the rites, the sacred mysteries.
Moreover, both lay and cleric alike should be reminded in this reading there is a difference between their roles. It is wrong to clericalize lay people and to laicize clergy, in the sense of taking from priests their priestly roles and handing them over to the laity. This is a subtle and insidious form of clericalism that has sadly developed because of the otherwise wholesome “universal call to holiness” launched by the of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. It is horribly condescending for priests to try to actualize lay people by handing their role and tasks to the laity. It is as if to say, “By your baptismal share in priesthood, you remain inadequate. I, however, will raise you high by letting you do what I can do.” How corrosive. We see the knock-on effect this has on every sphere of the Church’s life. Paul himself wrote that, in the Church, there are different roles. Some plant, others water.
Finally, the fire imagery Paul uses about brings before our mind’s eye that moment of our judgment. All that we are shall be revealed in the blinding light of Truth that will burn away every artifice and banish ever shadow of deception or concealment.
As we enter the final stage before the celebration of the Coming of the Lord into the Light of this world, we want to be bright, shiny, and clean ready for His adventus, our visitatio. Make a good examination of conscious, bringing the fire of your zeal into the darkest corners of your heart, and go to confession.