Second Sunday Of Advent
As on the First Sunday of Advent, the readings begin with a selection from the Book of Isaiah. Last Sunday we experienced oracles of Third Isaiah. That prophet’s name is unknown but his oracles, chapters 56-66, were collected and placed by editors in the Book of Isaiah. The same must be said of the “Isaiah” whose oracles form this Sunday’s first reading. He is called “Second Isaiah.” The time of his ministry is around 540 to 538 B.C. The place: Babylon, (today Iraq), where the People of Israel had been in exile since 587 B.C. The occasion of his ministry:
Cyrus the Great of Persia had conquered Babylon. Part of his policy was to let exiles in his dominions return to their home countries and rebuild cities and temples. His purpose: to please as many gods as possible, because the exiled peoples all had their own gods. Cyrus wanted the blessing of all the gods. When Cyrus proclaimed the Edict of Return for the People of Israel, he got the god-thing right, though he was not aware of it. This was not one of the gods, but God.
This part of the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, is called the Book of Consolation from its open-words, “Be consoled! Be consoled!, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry out to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned….” The message: they are going home to Jerusalem and Judea. The Isaiahan oracles of today’s readings begin with the kind of flattery of God that Jesus would centuries later teach his disciples to do in the Our Father prayer. God is reminded that he is our Father. In contrast to our own Our Father, the prophet gently blames God for letting his people wander with hardened hearts and loss of reverence for God. There is a recognition that the tragedy that befell God’s people was brought on by their sins. This is followed by some of the most joyful expressions in the Old Testament – building a highway for God’s return to Judea, through mountains and deserts, a promise that the glory of the Lord will be seen, an invitation to proclaim from a high mountain that God is with his people, “Here is your God!” The liturgy adapts these ancient oracles to the joyful expectation of the celebration of Jesus’ birth two millennia ago and the joyful anticipation of his final return.
The Responsorial Psalm takes up the theme of proclamation, a proclamation of peace, kindness, justice, and what a magnificent phrase! “Justice and peace shall kiss!” The Psalm selection closes with an invitation to “prepare for the Lord’s footprints,” a theme already struck in the first reading. The second reading is an excerpt from the Second Letter of St. Peter. The author of this letter deals with a problem current in the late first century and beyond – that the promise of an imminent final return of Jesus, made by the Letters of St. Paul and especially by the Gospel of Mark, did not happen. Christians were being ridiculed for this belief. The answer to this letter – “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” The delay of the Parousia, (Jesus’ final return), is due, says the author, only to God’s patience waiting for conversion before “The Day.” He assures his readers that “The Day” will happen, so “Get ready, and be found without spot or blemish before him.” Even though the author refers to the final return of Jesus, his thoughts can be adapted just as well to our preparation for the celebration of the Lord Jesus’ birthday.
The gospel for this Sunday introduces us to the preparatory ministry of the Forerunner of Jesus, the last of the Old Testament prophets, the bridge between Old and New Testament – John the Baptizer. Called “the Baptizer” because that’s what he did. The Greek verb baptizo is the font from which flow the English words “baptize, baptism, baptizer.” The meaning of the Greek verb: to plunge, dip, submerge into water. The Baptizer did a lot of it, since Mark writes, “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to John and being baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Mark calls John’s baptismal ritual “ a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The Baptizer, working in the late twenties and early thirties of the first century A.D., was so famous that memory of him and his work was still current in the late first century, as noted by a Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. He wrote, “John, who was called the Baptizer…was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue…towards one another and piety towards God, and come to baptism, a washing acceptable to God, if they made use of it, not just for putting away sins, but for the purification of the body, while supposing that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” Not bad for a Jewish general who became a Roman citizen and was adopted into a family of Caesars.
Second Isaiah, described above, heard an unknown voice about 540 B.C. The message of the voice was directed to Israel in exile in Babylon. It urged them to build a highway through mountains and deserts for their God to return with them to the Holy Land. Mark’s genius combined the words of the voice of 540 B.C. with an oracle of the Prophet Malachy of 430 B.C., which went like this in words attributed to God, “Behold, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me….” Whatever the context of Second Isaiah and Malachy, Mark adapts the oracles of both prophets to a description of John’s ministry. John is now the voice heard by Second Isaiah and is molded into the messenger of whom Malachy spoke so many centuries earlier. It is an amazing and justified use of Scripture – always open to new applications and adaptations. What was first directed to the people of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. is given new life and meaning in the first century A.D. by the Gospel of Mark. The message of the Baptizer invites us to prepare for the joyful celebration of Jesus’ birthday and the joyful anticipation of his final return – his Parousia.