Scripture and the Liturgy

Herald of Glad Tidings: 2nd Sun of Advent

The basic four-week structure of Advent remains the same throughout the three years of the lectionary cycle: the first week of Advent focuses on the Second Coming of Jesus; weeks two and three meditate on the figure of John the Baptist, the herald and forerunner of the Lord; and week four zooms in on the days just prior to the birth of Jesus. 

Here in the second week of Advent in Year B, our Readings introduce, or re-introduce, us to the bigger-than-life figure of John the Baptist, a man of immense importance to salvation history and to world history of his own times.  The “Billy Graham” of the first-century Roman Empire, John’s preaching was heard by tens or even hundreds of thousands and spread wide through the empire, such that decades later the Apostles would encounter disciples of John in far-off places like Ephesus on the west coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) (cf. Acts 19:3). The liturgy recognizes his greatness and gives John more attention than almost any saint save the Blessed Mother.  Both his Nativity (June 24) and his Martyrdom (Aug 29) are celebrated by the Church, and the Eastern tradition includes his conception (Sept 23). In addition, the second and third weeks of Advent focus on him every year, he plays an important role in the Feast of the Baptism, and the Gospels for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time also refer to him.  So he gets a lot of “air time” in the Lectionary.

The Readings for this Sunday combine Isaiah’s prophecy of John’s ministry (Isa 40) with the account of the beginning of his ministry according to Mark.  Through the figure of John the Baptist, Holy Mother Church calls us, like John’s contemporaries, to repent of our sins and ready ourselves to face Jesus.

Our First Reading is Is 40:1-5, 9-11:

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.

Readers with some exposure to classical music will recognize this reading as the tender and sublime opening tenor aria to Handel’s Messiah—a beautiful musical exegesis of the meaning of the text. 

Isaiah 40 is a pivotal text in the structure of the Book of Isaiah.  Isaiah 1-39, often dubbed “First Isaiah”, focusses predominantly on the lifetime of the prophet Isaiah and the spiritual issues of the people of Israel in the eighth century BC (700’s). Beginning in Isaiah 40, however, the focus of the prophecies shifts to the future, to a misty and ill-defined era to come, after the Israel will have completed her punishments for the sins the prophet identified earlier in his book.  In fact, Isaiah 40-66 may be profitably be read as a long, mystical description of the “Latter Days”, the eschatological and messianic age.  Chapter 40, then, serves as the introduction to the description of the messianic age.  The close association of John the Baptist with Isaiah 40 makes John into a kind of “prologue in a person”, a “foreword in the flesh,” an “introduction incarnate.”  John is to salvation history what Isaiah 40 is to the entire Book of Isaiah. 

The opening lines, “Comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” are in contrast to the fiery oracles of judgment on Israel and Jerusalem that characterize Isaiah 1-39.  The phrases “her service is at an end,” indicate that the prophet looks to a future time when the exile of Judah to Babylon will be over, and the dispersion of northern Israel to the nations will be rectified.

The next lines of the oracle can be translated in either of two ways: “A voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the LORD!” or “A voice crying: In the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD!” Jews in the centuries leading up to our Lord didn’t make much of this verse, with the exception of the Essene movement and John the Baptist.  The Essenes fixated on this verse and took it in the second sense, as an imperative to prepare for the coming of the Messiah out in the “wilderness.”  In North American culture, the term “wilderness” evokes images of vast, trackless forests; but for Israelites, especially those in Jerusalem, it referred to the barren badlands east of Jerusalem and down in the Dead Sea Valley.  The Essenes, accordingly, seemed to have headed straight east from Jerusalem, out into the wilderness, until they came to the shores of the Dead Sea, and there they established their community to “prepare the way of the LORD”:

They shall separate from the session of perverse men to go to the wilderness, there to prepare the way of truth,  as it is written, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). (The Community Rule [1QS]column 8, lns. 13-14).

John the Baptist, who was probably raised in that community (more on that later), took Isaiah 40:3 in the first sense, “a voice crying in the wilderness”, and identified himself as that voice.  He himself stayed in the wilderness to preach, but wanted everyone to prepare, but they did not need to prepare “in the wilderness”, like the Qumran community.

The language about valleys being raised up and hills brought low is actually a metaphor taken from ancient royal road-building.  When a great king would undertake a tour of his realm, teams went out in preparation to build a road suitable for the weight of the kings’ carriages and entourage.  They would literally cut down small hills and fill in dips or low spots to make a smooth road for the king’s party.  But the image applies spiritually to the ministry of John the Baptist.  John lifted up the humble and the outcasts by telling them that hope was not lost for them: they could repent and be baptized and take part in the coming age of the Messiah.  On the other hand, he humbled the proud by calling on arrogant leaders like the Sadducees and Pharisees to repent of their sins and acknowledge their need for a savior.  Spiritually these words continue to apply to those who hear the Gospel: the “valleys” are those downcast by their sins and failures, who think they are not worthy for salvation: these must be “raised up” and understand that they, too, can be saved.  On the other hand, the “hills” are the arrogant who think they do not need God or the Christ: these need to recognize their wickedness and repent.

“The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”  We can apply this to John’s ministry: he served to “reveal the glory of the LORD” particularly when he baptized Jesus.  Moreover, John preached at the fords of the Jordan, near Jericho, a few miles north of the mouth of the Jordan as it feeds the Dead Sea.  There were great trade routes in this area, and huge numbers of people and goods crossed here enroute to distant places of the Empire, from East to West and West to East.  Africans, Asians, Europeans all crossed here on their way to trade in distant lands.  It was like the “O’Hare Airport” of its day, a big transportation crossing hub.  This enabled John the Baptist to reach the whole world without leaving his familiar territory.  Like Billy Graham setting up a pulpit in O’Hare, John could preach to the whole world from one location.

The prophet continues: “Say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!”  John will serve this role of introducing God—in the person of Jesus—to the cities of Judah, all of whom went out to him to be baptized. Isaiah describes this God as both potent—with “power” and a “strong arm”—and as tender, like a gentle shepherd who cares for the young and the females of his flock.  This reminds us of the ministry of Jesus, which included fear-inspiring demonstrations of power—like the stilling of storms—as well as expressions of remarkable tenderness, such as raising a little girl by the hand from death, or curing a woman afflicted with constant internal bleeding.  Jesus is the powerful God who is also gentle shepherd.

Responsorial Psalm Ps 85:9-10-11-12, 13-14

R. (8) Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD—for he proclaims peace (shalom) to his people.
Near indeed is his salvation (yish’ô) to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Kindness (hesed) and truth (emet) shall meet;
justice (tzedeq) and peace (shalom) shall kiss.
Truth (emet) shall spring out of the earth,
and justice (tzedeq) shall look down from heaven.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
The LORD himself will give his benefits;
our land shall yield its increase.
Justice (tzedeq) shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.

This Psalm is perhaps chosen because it speaks of the “nearness of salvation”, using the word for salvation (yeshua’) that gives us the name “Jesus.”  So yes, our salvation, our “Jesus”, is near as we liturgically journey through the time of salvation history just before the birth of our Lord. He will be “glory dwelling in the land” during his earthly ministry.

This psalm also has a famous line perhaps overused in twentieth- and twenty-first-century political movements: “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss.” It’s important to understand the real meaning of these terms, to avoid their political co-option by movements not fully aligned to the Gospel. “Kindness” is hesed, the most frequent theologically-significant term in the Psalter, referring to the faithful love expected of covenant partners, a familial or spousal love. “Truth”, emet, is also a covenantal term, in the sense of being “true” to one’s beloved (Like Frank Sinatra in Fly Me to the Moon: “in other words, please be true”). The term “Justice” (tzedeq) does include ideas of justice in a legal setting, but is perhaps better rendered “righteousness.”  This is important in modern society, which divorces “justice” from “righteousness,” in other words, political justice from personal morality. So, for the leaders of society, it is perfectly fine for a person to be completely morally debauched in private life—given over to pornography, fornication, indulgence in substance abuse, unfaithful to spouse and family—provided he or she hold and advance the correct opinions in society about “social” justice, etc.  The Bible knows no such dichotomy, and in fact, social and legal justice are inherently tied to personal righteousness.  Although in individual cases the personally immoral person may act publicly for the common good, in the long run a society cannot maintain a just public order when all citizens are privately debauched.

When the psalm speaks of “truth” springing out of the earth and “righteousness” looking down from heaven, we can apply these, too, to the imminent birth of Christ.  Jesus is the “truth” who “sprung from the earth”, i.e. sprang forth from the virgin’s womb, the womb being correlated with the earth in numerous passages of Scripture and Second Temple Jewish literature. But in his divine nature, Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, righteousness itself who looked down on humanity with pity, and condescended to descend among us to teach us to be righteous like him.

“The LORD himself will give these benefits”, the psalm goes on to say, making us think of Jesus as the LORD himself walking among the people of Israel to dispense the benefits of truth and righteousness.  “Justice (tzedeq) shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps”—we can apply these words to John the Baptist, the preacher of justice toward all who came to him, who self-consciously intended to “prepare the way of the steps” of the Messiah who was to come after.

Our Second Reading is2 Pt 3:8-14:

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years
and a thousand years like one day.
The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,”
but he is patient with you,
not wishing that any should perish
but that all should come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

Since everything is to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be,
conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion,
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,
because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames
and the elements melted by fire.
But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you await these things,
be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

We have been pondering the Second Coming in the liturgy now for some time, since the final weeks of the last liturgical year and also strongly in the Readings for last week, the First Week of Advent.  Our Second Reading continues on this theme, and read in the context of Advent, this reading draws a comparison between the liturgical waiting for Christmas during Advent with the waiting that characterizes our whole lives: the waiting for the return of Jesus, the Second Coming.

The long delay in the coming of the Lord is not due to forgetfulness, Peter exhorts us, but should be regarded as a privileged time allowing for conversion among people before the final judgment.  But that judgment will come, and the results will be both material and spiritual, the Apostle insists. 

The key question this reading raises in the context of today’s liturgy is “What sort of person ought you to be?” in light of all that we hear and ponder today.  The second is the only one of today’s readings explicitly to raise the practical question: “So what?  So what if John the Baptist is the fulfillment of ancient Isaianic prophecy?  So what if he spoke of the coming of Jesus?  What effect does this have on my life?”

St. Peter specifies the effect: you should “all come to repentance,” you should “conduct yourselves in holiness and devotion,” “eager to be found without spot or blemish before him” when he comes in judgment.  Indeed, in this reading, St. Peter calls us to be like the crowds that heeded John the Baptist and submitted to his baptism so that they would be “without spot or blemish” when the Messiah John predicted would arrive in Israel.  During this Advent Season, we likewise should hurry to the “Second Baptism” of the confessional to be cleansed of every blemish, and spend our days in “holiness and devotion” as we await the coming of Christmas.

Gospel Mk 1:1-8

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.”
John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark says simply that John “appeared in the desert”, without any backstory on the Baptist, but Luke gives us his priestly lineage from his father Zechariah and lets us know that John was already out in the desert before he began his public ministry (Luke 1:80).  I think this statement from Luke means that John was sent by his parents—or other family members after their passing—to be raised by the devout men of the Essene movement in their “monastery” on the shores of the Dead Sea, in “the wilderness.”  We know from Josephus that the Essene community did except boys from the rest of Jewish society, whom they formed according to their beliefs and practices, and this was the source of their “vocations.” 

John preaches a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  The Qumranites baptized daily for forgiveness, but John seems to administer a one-time baptism as a sign of a definitive change in disposition and lifestyle.

The “whole Judean countryside” and “Jerusalem” was going out to him: this requires that John was ministering on the west bank of the Jordan, within the stretch of the river that lay ten miles or less from the effluence into the Dead Sea.  More than about ten miles north of the Dead Sea would place one in Samaritan territory, and the Judeans and Jerusalemites would not enter Samaria for any reason.  The Qumran monastery was a few miles south and west of the mouth of the Jordan along the shores of the sea.

“They were baptized by him and acknowledged their sins.”  This was quite an act of humility on the part of the Jews, because it was tantamount to admitting that they were completely ritually unclean and needed a whole-body washing. It was also humiliating to acknowledge sin publicly, as usually sin was only acknowledged to a priest when bringing sacrifice.  John’s washing of people as they confess sin is a kind of priestly action, because according to Mosaic law, the unclean Israelite had to go to the priest, acknowledge his sin or defilement, and submit to the washings or other rituals that the priest would prescribe.  Notice that the prouder among the Jews: the Pharisees and Sadducees, are not recorded as those who submitted to his baptism.

John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.

The hair garment and leather belt around his waist are signs of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), so John seems intentionally to be co-opting the image and persona of his illustrious prophetic ancestor.  The feeding on locusts and wild honey seems to indicate that he was eating whatever unprepared foods he could find in the environment. Josephus informs us that persons kicked out of the Essene community were forced to do this, because their oaths sworn upon admission to the community forbade them ever to eat food prepared elsewhere.  A loophole seems to have been unprepared foods or simply edible aspects of the environment, so Josephus mentions people trying to subsist on grass and bark. To me, this is an indication that John had been kicked out of the Qumran community. This may have been for any number of reasons, but what strikes me is his willingness to preach to the public, even to Gentiles—this was strictly forbidden in the community rule. Perhaps John became disenchanted with the community’s refusal to preach the message of preparation for the Messiah to all the people and to the nations, as Isaiah envisions.

Like the Essenes, John expected a Messiah: “One mightier than I is coming after me.”  The Essenes expected two Messiahs, a priestly and a royal.  John speaks of just one “mightier” person.  Perhaps John embraced the “minority report” among the Essenes that Melchizedek would return and be both priest and king.  Or, perhaps he saw himself as the priestly messiah, and the “one mightier” is the royal Son of David for whom he prepared.

“I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  The Qumranites thought they already had the Holy Spirit and the Spirit was transmitted by their daily water washings.  John seems to disagree. Maybe he became disenchanted with the community and came to the conclusion that they did not have the Holy Spirit, but rather that the Holy Spirit was still to come in the ministry of the Messiah.  In any event, that is what he preaches here: a messianic figure is about to rise who has the power to confer the Holy Spirit.

How do we hear this Gospel, we who know who that “mightier one” is and have already received from him the Holy Spirit through the sacraments?  Well, during this Advent, let’s daily commit ourselves to repenctance, to “holiness and devotion”, that we may appear “without spot or wrinkle.” John, even though he was cleansed from sin from the womb, nonetheless practiced asceticism to preserve himself on the path of holiness.  If John could wear a hair garment and live on bugs and honey, can we not make some personal sacrifices, even some physical mortifications, during this Advent?  Yes, Advent is not Lent, but it is a penitential period, and who of us is not in need of some purification and penance? Let’s not be like the Pharisees and Sadducees, too proud to admit their need and heed John’s preaching!

1 comment

Leave a Reply to Benjamin Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: