Scripture and the Liturgy

Rejoice! It’s Gaudete Sunday!

Rejoice, everybody!  This Sunday we light the rose-colored (not pink!) candle of the Advent wreath, as a sign of our joy that we have passed the mid-point of Advent.  During this penitential season (are you practicing a small penance?) in anticipation of the coming of Our Lord, we take a break from our practices of self-denial this Sunday in order to celebrate that Christmas is drawing near!

The Readings for this Sunday are unified by the theme of rejoicing, and they provide a good meditation on the role of joy in the Christian life.  Perhaps a line from the first Reading best sums up the message of the Scriptures this Sunday: “God is the joy of my soul.”  How true this is!  How often we are tempted to put something else into the “God” slot in that statement: “________ is the joy of my soul.”  How do we fill in the blank?  Money?  Success?  Caffeine/Alcohol/some other drug?  Sex?  Football?  Some other sport? A hobby?  This Sunday is time to rejoice for all those who put “God” in the blank.

1.  Our First Reading is Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.

This very famous passage is one of the well-known “Servant Songs” of the prophet Isaiah.  In the second half of the Book of Isaiah (chs. 40-66), there are several extended poems that describe a mysterious “servant of the LORD” about whom wondrous things are said and predicted.  Most of the Servant Songs are third-person descriptions, but Isaiah 61 is one of a few that are phrased in the first-person: that is, the Servant himself speaks. 

In this passage, the Servant asserts that he has been anointed with the Spirit of the LORD God.  Prophets, priests, and kings were anointed in ancient Israel.  The Servant is probably all three.  The combination of anointing and the reception of the Spirit calls to mind the figure of David, who was filled with the Spirit when Samuel anointed him in 1 Sam 16.  David, too, was prophet (2 Sam 23:1-2), priest (Ps 110), and king.  As Daniel I. Block has shown in some studies, there is good reason to understand the “Servant” of Isaiah as a Davidic figure, indeed, the Son of David.1

There is a purpose for which God has anointed the Servant:

to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

“Glad tidings” means “good news.”  In Greek this is “eu” (=”good) + “angelia” (“news”).  In the Septuagint, the verse reads more or less literally as “to evangelize the poor.”

“Proclaiming liberty to captives and release to prisoners” calls to mind the royal proclamations of “liberty” that were often promulgated in the ancient Near East when a new king took the throne.  These were general decrees of amnesty that effected specific oppressed classes of persons.  It also calls to mind the Jubilee Year of Leviticus 25.  Israel did not originally have a human king, so God gave them laws establishing a decree of liberty (deror) every fifty years, the Year of Jubilee.  The phrase “proclaim liberty” (qara’ derôr) that Isaiah uses here is only found elsewhere in the Jubilee law of Leviticus 25:10 and in Jer 34:8-17, another passage that refers to the Jubilee.  (Full disclosure: I wrote my dissertation on the biblical Jubilee.  It’s The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran, VetusTestamentumSupplements115; Leiden: Brill, 2007).

Isaiah 61 is particularly significant, because we see that Israel’s hope in the Jubilee is being combined with the hope for a coming “anointed one” or Messiah.  The Messiah will proclaim the Jubilee Year, the “year of the LORD’s favor.”  Will this mean an economic restructuring of society?  In time, devout Israelites began to realize their real problems were not economic but spiritual. There was a need for a “Jubilee” from the debt of sin more than money debts.

The Essene movement expected God to send such a Jubilee.  The Essenes were one of the three great sects of Jews in the time of Jesus, along with the Sadducees and Pharisees, who are better known to us because they are mentioned by name in the Gospels.  The Essenes also appear in the Gospels, if you know what to watch for (the man carrying a jar of water [Lk 22:10], the young man wearing only a linen garment [Mk 14:51-52], the eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom [Mt 19:12]), but they are not named. They were a holiness movement that took a stringent interpretation of the Law, practiced asceticism including celibacy, and sponsored monasteries, like the famous one on the shores of the Dead Sea whose library is known to us as the “Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Among these scrolls was found a document  scholars call “11QMelchizedek”, because it was found in the 11th cave of Qumran and contains a prophecy of the return of a messianic “Melchizedek” who, in fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-2, would proclaim a Jubilee Year to forgive sins.  Now we understand why it generated so much excitement when Jesus went to the Synagogue of Nazareth, read Isaiah 61:1-2, and preached: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!” Jesus was identifying himself with the “servant of the LORD” whom the Essenes assimilated to the figure of Melchizedek the priest-king.

You may wonder why the text combines these two seemingly antithetical images: “A year of favor … a day of vindication/vengeance.”  This reflects the two different roles of the go’el or “redeemer.”  A “redeemer” was a close male relative who, on the one hand, was supposed to come and show kindness to you when you got yourself in trouble (like buying back out of slavery, see Lev 25), or, on the other hand, would avenge/vindicate your life by punishing whoever had killed you (see Num 35).  Relief for the victim, punishment for the victimizer: this was the duty of the go’el, the “Redeemer.” This word occurs more often in Leviticus and Isaiah than any other Biblical books.  Isaiah is unique for how often it refers to God as the go’el, “Redeemer.”

Our First Reading skips several verses before picking up with what appears to be another “song” in the mouth of the Servant near the end of Isaiah 61 (vv. 10-11):

I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.

Here the servant describes himself in royal terminology (“robe of salvation”/”mantle of justice”) and also nuptial imagery (“like a bridegroom … like a bride”) and even new creation/Edenic images (“a garden springs up”).  The “Servant” is filled with joy to be the object of God’s favor.  All those who have been baptized into Jesus, and thus have become one body with him, can take these same words on our lips!  God has been truly good to us!  So what if there are problems of various sorts: health, money, political issues, etc.  Our happiness is not in those things!  “In my God is the joy of my soul!”

2.  In keeping with this theme of joy, the Responsorial Psalm is Our Lady’s “Magnificat,” Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54:

R/ (Is 61:10b) My soul rejoices in my God.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
My soul rejoices in my God.
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
My soul rejoices in my God.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
My soul rejoices in my God.

Here we see that Mary is adopting the attitude and posture of the Servant of the LORD in Isa 61:1-2.  How can she do this?  Isn’t the “Servant of the LORD” Jesus Himself?  Yes, but the Blessed Mother has Jesus in her womb.  She is the first Christian, the first person to be united as one flesh with Jesus.  So what is true of Jesus, is true of her by extension.  She is taken up into the Messianic mission of Christ, to “proclaim good news … and liberty,” and to find in God the “joy of her soul.”  Mary speaks as if God has already established “justice” through his Messiah: filling the oppressed “hungry” with good things (think of the feeding miracles) and sending the rich oppressors away empty (think of the rich young ruler (Matt 21:22).  Like the prophets of old, she speaks as if these things have already taken place, although in fact God has only begun to act in historical time.

But we, in Mass, take up Mary’s words as our own.  What is true of her, is true of the Church as a whole.  God has done great things for us!  He has “filled the hungry with good things”, namely, the Eucharist.  We at Mass are the spiritually hungry, those who realize they are “poor in spirit,” that is, having nothing good in ourselves, by ourselves.  So we come to Mass to feast on God, the “joy of our souls”!  Meanwhile, the wealthy of this world—all the elite, the stars, the entertainers, the celebrities, the powerbrokers, those who control the media, entertainment, education, government, etc.—turn up their collective nose at the absurdity of these “medieval rituals” that some still do on Sundays.  Let’s pray for them that they can see their poverty and join us to feast on the one Good Thing. 

3.  Our Second Reading is from St. Paul: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24:

Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good.
Refrain from every kind of evil.

May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.

Rejoice always.  That is the key reason this text was chosen for “Gaudete” or “Rejoicing” Sunday.  How is it possible to “rejoice always”?  Well, in order to do that, we have to develop some other habits: (1) praying all the time; (2) always giving thanks, that is, trying to see the “silver lining” in everything that God sends our way; (3) not quenching the Spirit, (4) respecting “prophecy”, which would apply (among other things) to the preaching of our parish priest, and (5) refraining from evil.  Learning to “rejoice always” is part of a larger package of a life of virtue, in which everything is inter-related.  This is the “package” the Servant came to teach us, and this is the “package” that Mary lived out so well.

St. Paul prays: “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy …. Blameless in spirit, soul, and body.”  This makes us think of Mary, whose Immaculate Conception (and immaculate life!) we celebrated earlier this week.  However, we are all called to perfect holiness, even if it is difficult in this life.

St. Paul says we should be blameless in “body, soul, and spirit.” This shows there are sins of the body (fornication, gluttony, sloth) as well as of the “soul” (the mind and heart: lust, avarice, wrath) and the “spirit” (pride, heresy, rejection of God). 

We need to remain “blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Following Christ means not just believing but actually being transformed, becoming “blameless” so we can stand at the final judgment.  This calls to mind Advent’s dual focus on the Second and First Coming of Jesus.  We want to keep our sight on both horizons.  Waiting for the liturgical coming of Christ (Christmas) recalls his First Coming and looks forward to his Second. 

4.  Our Gospel is John 1:6-8, 19-28:

A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.

And this is the testimony of John.
When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests
and Levites to him
to ask him, “Who are you?”
He admitted and did not deny it,
but admitted, “I am not the Christ.”
So they asked him,
“What are you then? Are you Elijah?”
And he said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
So they said to him,
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?
What do you have to say for yourself?”
He said:
“I am
the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘make straight the way of the Lord,’
as Isaiah the prophet said.”
Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,
“Why then do you baptize
if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”
John answered them,
“I baptize with water;
but there is one among you whom you do not recognize,
the one who is coming after me,
whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan,
where John was baptizing.

John the Baptist figures prominently during the season of Advent, because he announced the coming of Jesus.  Weeks 2 and 3 of Advent often have Gospel texts reflecting on his ministry. 

A little background helps to make this Gospel a little clearer.  John the Baptist was causing a stir by performing a spiritual water-washing ritual on people in the Jordan River.  This smacked of some kind of end-times preparation, because various prophets, notably Ezekiel (Ezek 36:25ff) had spoken of an end-times water-washing associated with the new age that God would usher in.  Moreover, John the Baptist was walking around dressed like Elijah, with a hair shirt and leather belt (2 Kings 1:8).  Who did he think he was?  The religious leaders from Jerusalem send messengers to find out.  There were at least three figures the Judeans expected to come at the end of the age:

  • the Messiah or “Anointed One” predicted by the prophets (Isa 61, Dan 9, etc);
  • Elijah himself, whom Malachi prophesied would return before the “Day of the LORD” (Mal 4:5); and
  • “The Prophet,” that is, the prophet like Moses, whom Moses predicted would come some day (see Deut 18:15ff).

So the messengers from Jerusalem come with clip boards and lists of “end times figures,” to check the box by the one with whom John the Baptist identifies himself.  But they have to cross off all their boxes!  “I’m none of these,” John says.  Who is he, then?  “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness…”  This is a quote from Isaiah 40, a famous chapter that serves as an introduction the long vision of the age of the messiah that is Isaiah 40–66.  So John is an introduction incarnate, a prologue in person, a foreword in the flesh. 

John points to someone greater.  He is not the Servant of the LORD of Isaiah 61: Jesus will be that.  His job is to point to the Servant.  In a sense, that’s our job as Christians, too: to point to God’s Servant, Jesus.

Some may wonder, “Why doesn’t John say he is Elijah? Other texts identify him as such (see Matt 11:14; 17:12; Mark 9:12-13.)”  The reason is, the Judeans are wondering if John is Elijah raised from the dead.  And he isn’t, so he says, “No.”  But is he the one spoken of as “Elijah” in the prophets?  Yes.  Gabriel, in Luke 1:17, clarifies: “he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah.”  John had the Elijianic charism, similar to the way some Franciscans strongly bear the charism of St. Francis.

John comes to “make straight the way of the Lord.”  In Isaiah 40, this “Lord” is the LORD, in other words, the divine name.  John has come to make straight the way for YHWH the God of Israel.  But I though he was to prepare for someone who would wear sandals, that is, a human being?  Yes.  Jesus is YHWH.  This is indicating Christ’s divinity.

So what do we do this Sunday?  We rejoice!  God has seen our poverty, and he is sending (has sent!) us his Servant to feed our hungry souls with Himself, and to teach us that in God is joy!  Let’s stay humble, like the Blessed Virgin and John the Baptist, and keep our fingers pointed to Jesus, telling others about Him!

1 See Daniel I. Block, “My Servant David: Ancient Israel’s Vision of the Messiah,” in Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed. R. S. Hess and M. D. Carroll R.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003) pp. 17-56, esp. pp. 49-56)


Leave a Reply