(These commentaries are available in book form here.)
I always take consolation from the example of saints who faced death in the middle of a historical situation that offered little in the way of hope. Three in particular come to mind: St. Augustine died with an army of Arian Goths surrounding Hippo in what looked like the end for Western Christian civilization. St. Thomas More was executed at a time when it looked like all was lost for the Church in England. St. Maximillian Kolbe was killed when it looked like German Fascism was going to triumph over Christianity in Europe.
It’s hard to wait for salvation, especially when everything around you seems to be getting worse, not better. That was the case for two figures that we encounter in this Sunday’s readings: Isaiah and John the Baptist. Together, these two prophets teach us how to wait with faith and courage, even when the winds of history seem to be thrashing us and threatening to collapse everything around our ears.
1. Our First Reading is Is 35:1-6a, 10:
The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
Isaiah seems to be prophesying the agricultural fertility of the southern Judean desert. Yet when I was last in Israel, the Negev (southern desert) was just as dry as it was in Isaiah’s day. So was the prophet wrong?
We have to ponder for a moment: what did the prophet mean by this image of flowers blooming in the desert? Our first impulse is to take the statement literally. But then we ponder: has anything in the first thirty-four chapters of Isaiah given us reason to believe that the big problem with Israel, in the prophet’s estimation, is poor irrigation, lack of rainfall, and inept horticulture? If Isaiah had been denouncing Israel for their lack of gardens and low water table chapter after chapter, then a literal reading of this prophecy may be in order. But the faults Isaiah denounced were none of these. Instead, he has denounced hardness of heart, injustice, hypocrisy, pride, deafness and blindness to God’s word. The answer to these things is not the miraculous provision of water in the Negev, but an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the hearts of his people.
This leads us to understand that Isaiah’s prophecy here is cryptic. The “desert” and “parched land” are the hearts and souls of God’s people, who have become resistant to his word, like the soil along the path in Jesus’ parable (Matt 13:19). But this will not always be the case. God will act in such a way that the hearts of his people will bloom with new life; with faith, hope and love.
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Isaiah and his fellow Israelites lived through a fearful time in the history of God’s people. During Isaiah’s lifetime (c. 750-680 BC), the Assyrian empire to the north of Israel systematically destroyed the larger northern kingdom (c. 722 BC) and reduced the smaller kingdom of Judah to the capital city of Jerusalem, which only survived destruction by a miracle (c. 701 BC; cf. 2 Kings 19). Although Israel and Judah were rife with corruption, Assyria was even worse, a true ancient “culture of death” who worshiped war gods and specialized in cruelty, impaling their foes alive on pikes and abusing women captives in unspeakable ways. They captured the mass of the population of the northern kingdom and scattered the captives into exile in distant places on the fringes of the Near East. No wonder Isaiah’s contemporaries were “feeble” and “weak” because their “hearts were frightened.” Yet in the midst of it all, Isaiah counseled them to take courage. God would come to save his people!
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Again, what does the prophet mean by this? If it was physical handicaps for which he had been castigating Israel up to this point, we would be justified in taking the text in its literal sense. Yet when Isaiah was called in Isaiah 6, God said to him:
“Go, and say to this people:
‘Hear and hear, but do not understand;
see and see, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people fat,
and their ears heavy,
and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.” (Isa 6:9-10, RSV2CE)
It is obviously spiritual deafness and blindness that Isaiah has been sent to address. Thus, in the prophesy of Isa 35 that we read for this Sunday, it is first of all spiritually blind, deaf, lame, and mute persons about whom the prophet promises healing.
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.
Here Isaiah speaks of all those from both Israel and Judah who were exiled by the Assyrians and scattered among the nations. Will they be lost to God’s plan of salvation forever? No, says the prophet. There will be a new Exodus, and God will bring them out from the nations and return them to “Zion,” the holy city, their spiritual home.
We call this the “New Exodus” theme, and it runs throughout the book of Isaiah. Another text that advances this theme is a famous one from Isaiah 40: “A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3, RSV2CE). This “highway” (Heb. mesillah or derekh)—an image that occurs frequently in Isaiah (11:15-16; 19:23; 30:21; 35:8; 40:3; 42:16; 43:19; 49:11; 51:10; 57:14; 62:10)—finds its fulfillment in John 14:6, when Jesus says, “I AM the Way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, KJV). He is the path of the New Exodus, on which the twelve tribes—embodied in the persons of his twelve apostles—will return to God.
2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10:
R. (cf. Is 35:4) Lord, come and save us.
The LORD God keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
R. Lord, come and save us.
The LORD gives sight to the blind;
the LORD raises up those who were bowed down.
The LORD loves the just;
the LORD protects strangers.
R. Lord, come and save us.
The fatherless and the widow he sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations.
R. Lord, come and save us.
Psalm 146 is the first of the five “Hallelujah” psalms that form the conclusion to the Psalter (146–150). Interestingly, Psalm 146 begins by discouraging us from looking to politics for answers:
“Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no help.
When his breath departs he returns to his earth;
on that very day his plans perish.” (Ps 146:3-4, RSV2CE)
Any lasting hope can come only from God. It’s not a human kingdom that we seek but one established by the creator himself: “The LORD shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, through all generations!” The blessings promised in the remainder of the Psalm sound strikingly like those articulated by Isaiah in Isaiah 35, 61 and various other oracles scattered in Isaiah 40–66. The Psalmist and Isaiah both see God as ultimately the savior of the downtrodden: poor, blind, lame, mute, and otherwise marginalized persons. We should not forget that the righteous are typically among the marginalized, because they are considered a threat by the rest of society.
3. The Second Reading is James 5:7-10:
Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,
being patient with it
until it receives the early and the late rains.
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another,
that you may not be judged.
Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
When James speaks of waiting for the “precious fruit of the earth” and the “early and the late rains,” we can tell he is using an agricultural image for the ripening of the souls of God’s people, an image we saw already in Isaiah above. Sometimes it seems to take so long to grow in holiness, both in ourselves and in others. But James counsels patience.
“Take as an example,” he says, “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” This line almost summarizes the theme of today’s Reading. Two prophets stand before us: Isaiah and John the Baptist. Isaiah was the greatest of the “latter” or “literary” prophets, that is, the prophets who left us written books. John was the greatest of all the prophets, according to the words of Jesus himself. Yet both these prophets died without seeing the fulfillment of the good things they prophesied. Isaiah died during the unholy reign of Manasseh, the king of Judah who did his best to undo all the progress that had been made under his father Hezekiah. John died in prison, executed on the whim of a clueless, salacious teenager and her trampy, vampy mother. Yet they stood firm; and here thousands of years later we remember them and are inspired by them, and still commune with them, because they are alive with God and bound to us in the Holy Spirit. Let their example give us courage to wait for the LORD in our own day.
4. The Gospel is Matthew 11:2-11:
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
This question seems odd, because John recognized Jesus at the Baptism, and according to other Gospel accounts, acknowledged him to be the Messiah, the one who was to come after him, whose thongs he was not worthy to untie. So what is the meaning of this question?
It seems to me that John’s imprisonment was putting his faith to the test. It is true that John had encountered and experienced Jesus in happier times, when he was preaching at the Jordan and all the crowds were coming to him. At that time, it seemed that the kingdom of heaven would appear at any time in power. But things had not worked out exactly that way. Why was John now imprisoned for speaking the truth? And if Jesus was the one who had been anointed to “preach good news to the poor … to proclaim liberty to captives, and the opening of prison to those who are bound,” could he uses some of that liberating power to get John released?
Even great saints can go through a dark night and experience trials of faith. Such is not incompatible with holiness. As John suffers in the physical and spiritual darkness of Herod’s dungeon, he reaches out to Jesus for consolation: “Are you the one who is to come? Don’t you know I’m imprisoned? For speaking up for marriage!?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus sends back a message of consolation to John: “Go tell him that the signs of the Messianic age according to Isaiah 35 and 61 are being fulfilled visibly in your sight. John will understand the implications. Blessed is the one who is not offended that my way of bringing in the kingdom of God is other than they had expected.”
Isaiah’s prophecies about the blind, lame, deaf, etc. were, as we saw, actually speaking about spiritual realities. But condescending to our weak nature, that needs tangible, visible signs (Jn 4:48), Jesus literally enacts prophecies that were intended in a spiritual sense.
If the primary problems with humanity were physical handicaps, Jesus would have founded a hospital, to heal people’s bodies. But instead he founded a Church, to heal people’s souls. That Church has gone on to found hospitals, too, because she realizes with Jesus that we need tangible signs of God’s love. But the physical healing should point us toward a deeper healing, otherwise it is only temporary and ultimately meaningless.
As they were going off,
Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John,
“What did you go out to the desert to see?
A reed swayed by the wind?
Then what did you go out to see?
Someone dressed in fine clothing?
Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.
Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?
Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
This is the one about whom it is written:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.
Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Jesus goes on to praise John the Baptist, calling him the greatest of the prophets of the old covenant, the culmination of the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures of Israel (see Matt 11:13). Yet “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” What does this mean?
The kingdom of heaven ultimately is the Church. Jesus’ words may be taken as a reference to the Church Triumphant, those who are saved and even know dwell in God’s presence in heaven. They are greater than John, because the see God face to face and share his blessedness, while John is still subject to trials physical and spiritual, and the weakness of his body.
Again, this may be taken as a reference to the Church Militant, the believers who still struggle on earth. While we may lack many of John’s virtues, nonetheless we have so many advantages he did not: the sacraments that convey to us the Holy Spirit, the fullness of truth in the Scriptures and further clarified by the Church, the invigorating reality of the communion of the saints, etc. So even the least, who truly believes in Christ, is greater than John in many ways.
Or we should say, greater than John was, because as Jesus spoke, John was still on this earth and bound under the Old Covenant. He has since gone on to glory, and stands in God’s presence now with the other saints.
There is no doubt that this life involves painful waiting during times when life seems to go backward rather than forward.
Even during this Advent, as we sing songs about the coming hope and joy of Jesus’ arrival, it may sit oddly with the events in our personal lives, as well as social and political events around the world, many of which seem to portend inevitable disaster rather than love, joy and peace. The Church is realistic and so are the Scriptures. Jesus told us: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33, NIV). That’s the message of the Readings this Sunday. Like the prophets, we are looking forward in the middle of world running in reverse. But this present world is a temporary problem to which Jesus has given an eternal answer. As the pink candle is lit to mark “Gaudete Sunday,” let’s take heart at the fact that we, least as we are, can stand with a great like John the Baptist and look forward to enjoying his company in the presence of God one day.
(Would you like to see the place along the Jordan River where John the Baptist baptized Our Lord? Come with me to Israel, June 23-July 2, 2023! Let me be your personal Bible teacher at the actual sites of the Gospels for eight days! Check it out here.)