First Reading Commentary
Ephrathah is a very ancient name for Bethlehem and is described as too small to be among the clans of Judah which may suggest the humble state in which the Messiah would come. Bethlehem is the city of David and the Old Testament prophecies indicate that the Messiah would rise up from the house of David.
In Saint Matthew's Gospel the first verse of this Reading is quoted by Herod's chief priests and scribes when Herod was trying to ascertain where the Messiah was to be born (cf. Matthew 2:1-6).
The verse, "whose origin is from of old, from ancient times," is translated from the Hebrew. The Latin, on the other hand, uses the words, "et egressus eius ab initio, a diebus æternitatis" (and his going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity). The Latin seems to hint that this ruler of Israel will be none other than God Himself since only He is eternal.
"Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel." This verse is prophesying that the Messiah would be born of a woman but also suggests that this ruler of Israel will not come until after Israel is freed from Babylonian captivity. While it's true that Christ was born after Israel's freedom from captivity, historically it was a great deal of time after, as Israel's captivity ended somewhere around 538 B.C.
The closing verses give us some of the images that we have of Christ; He is our Shepherd, He is our Lord, His greatness extends to all the earth, and He is our Peace.
Second Reading Commentary
On the surface this Reading doesn't seem to offer much in theme for the season of Advent; but the opening verse is a reminder that Christ came into the world. As Christians, “Christ coming into the world” is something that is so well-known by us that there's a danger of accepting it too casually or treating it as a passing comment.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 40:7-9 to point out that this prophecy refers to Christ and also to explain further that Christ fulfilled this prophecy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this Reading very thoroughly: “The Son of God, Who came down from heaven, not to do His own will, but the will of Him Who sent Him, said on coming into the world, ‘Lo, I have come to do Your will, O God.’ And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the Body of Jesus Christ once for all. From the first moment of His Incarnation the Son embraces the Father's plan of divine salvation in His redemptive mission: ‘My food is to do the will of Him Who sent Me, and to accomplish His work.’ The sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the whole world expresses His loving communion with the Father. ‘The Father loves Me, because I lay down My life’, said the Lord, ‘for I do as the Father has commanded Me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.’ The desire to embrace His Father's plan of redeeming love inspired Jesus' whole life, for His redemptive Passion was the very reason for His Incarnation. And so He asked, ‘And what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.’ And again, ‘Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given Me?’ From the cross, just before ‘It is finished’, He said, ‘I thirst’" (CCC 606-607).
When reflecting and meditating upon this truth, and having the faith to embrace it, the statement of, "Christ came into the world" could never be casually accepted; instead it becomes the source of tremendous joy and gratitude.
Saint Luke makes great efforts in his Gospel to depict the Virgin Mary as the Ark of the New and Everlasting Covenant. Consider what was contained in the Ark of the Old Covenant: The tablets of the Law (Exodus 40:18; Deuteronomy 10:5), a gomor of manna (Exodus 16:34), and the rod of Aaron (Numbers 17:10), which represented the rod of the high priesthood. Contained in the womb of Mary is the Lawmaker, the True Manna -- that is -- the Bread of Life, and the High Priest Himself.
The infant leaping in the womb of Elizabeth at the sound of Mary's greeting is strikingly similar to King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant (cf. 2 Samuel 6). In that same chapter David says: "How shall the ark of the Lord come to me?" (ibid. verse 9) while in this Gospel Elizabeth says: "How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" The Ark of the Old Covenant abode in the house of Obededom for three months (ibid. verse 11) while Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months (cf. Luke 1:56). When piecing together the journey of the Ark of the Old Covenant, the evidence reveals that it is the same route that Mary took.
Elizabeth exclaims to Mary: "Blessed are you among women." In Scripture such accolades are not reserved for Mary alone. Two other women also received similar praise: In the Book of Judges (5:24) are the words: "Blessed among women be Jael" and in the Book of Judith (13:18), Uzziah says to Judith: "Blessed are you, O daughter, by the Lord the Most High God, above all women upon the earth." Jael drove a tent peg through the skull of Sisera the Canaanite; and Judith brought freedom to the Jewish people by cutting off the head of Holofernes, the commander of the Assyrian army. Thus these two women are praised for striking at the heads of their enemies. All the way back in the Book of Genesis (3:15) God says to the serpent: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed; he will strike at your head while you strike at his heel." The ancient Fathers have always seen this as a prophecy about the Virgin Mary and her offspring, Jesus; therefore the praise of Jael and Judith is in anticipation of the praise that Elizabeth would offer to Mary.
Interesting note on the verse from Genesis: The Latin Vulgate translates as, "She shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for her heel." The Latin makes use of the word “ipsa” which is a feminine pronoun. The explanation for the difference could very well be an ancient copyist error. Saint Robert Bellarmine, however, has passed onto us that the original Hebrew text is ambiguous. The Septuagint agrees with the Vulgate. More stringent research had been conducted by Sixtus V and Clement VIII which concluded that "it" is the proper pronoun which likely points to the offspring which is how the translation evolved to the pronoun "he". The sense is, then, that Mary would crush the head of the serpent by means of her offspring, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Finally, in this Gospel, Elizabeth says to Mary: "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." Saint Luke would appear to be making a comparison to Eve who instead believed the words of the serpent. As we get ready to celebrate the coming of God as Man, the Catechism of the Catholic Church shares, concerning this Gospel, that John the Baptist inaugurates the Gospel and already from his mother's womb welcomes the coming of Christ (cf. CCC 523).