Third Sunday Of Advent
For the first reading, we return to that part of the Book of Isaiah called Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66). This prophet was active in Jerusalem about 530-520 B.C. The original context of these prophetic oracles: a proclamation of the credentials of this unknown prophet, a kind of mission statement. It is a beautiful piece of work. His mission: “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives, release to prisoners, etc.”
As happens often in the providence of God, a passage of Old Testament Scripture is given new life and new meaning in the New Testament. The fame of this passage of Isaiah 61 rests not so much on its appearance in the oracles of Isaiah, but rather in its adaptation five hundred years later by the author of the Gospel of Luke to proclaim the credentials and the mission of Jesus.
Since the gospel of this Sunday emphasizes once again the mission of John the Baptizer, the liturgy adapts this passage as a description first of the mission of the Baptizer, and perhaps secondarily to the mission of Jesus. Even in its Old Testament context, this passage from Isaiah 61 is a proclamation not only to the People of Israel but to the whole world. This can be seen in its closing words, “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.” It is therefore a suitable choice to proclaim the mission of the Baptizer who was sent (anointed by God) to prepare the way for him who would “make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.”
The Responsorial Psalm is part of Luke’s gospel, the Magnificat or Hymn of Mary. It continues the theme of outreach to the needy without neglecting a universal intent, “All generations will call me blessed,” and “He has mercy on those who revere him in every generation.”
The second reading is an excerpt from the oldest New Testament document we have at this time, St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, written about the year 50 A.D. to a Christian congregation Paul founded in Greece. A major purpose of the letter: to alleviate the anxiety of these Christians about a problem that Paul himself caused. He was convinced and accordingly proclaimed that Jesus would return imminently and pull his people into the sky where he himself had gone. As it is often phrased today, “The end is at hand!” The problem was this: some Christians were no longer alive. Will they be “left behind?” Paul’s solution must wait for another time because our second reading goes to the end of the letter, the “Let us” part, the “do this” and the “do that” part. The reason for the choice of this reading for this Sunday seems to be chiefly in the words, “…be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thus the reading can be adapted to the twofold joyful anticipation of Advent: the approaching celebration and commemoration of the Savior’s birth and the anticipation of his final return.
Although 2018 uses the Gospel of Mark as its central proclamation, from time to time the liturgy directs us to the Gospel of John – a gospel which unfortunately does not have its own year as do the other three gospels. Last Sunday we experienced the mission of John the Baptizer in Mark’s version of that mission. Today we turn to John’s version. There are similarities with the other three gospels in John’s version, but also great differences. The thrust of this part of John’s version of the Baptizer’s mission is a lengthy questioning and demand by a delegation from the supreme religious authority in Jerusalem to explain his freelance activity. They question the Baptizer somewhere along the Jordan River where he was doing his work. John defends not only his activity but also his credentials. From our gospels, we can conclude that his self-defense did not penetrate the upper echelons of religious authority. Evidence can be found in the gospels that the “Supremes” were involved in the Baptizer’s arrest and execution just as they were involved in the arrest and execution of Jesus. In more ways than one, John was the Forerunner of Jesus.
The delegation wants to know, “Who are you?” John does not tell them yet. Instead, he replies in a triple denial. “I am not the Christ (Messiah)!” Is he perhaps the prophet Elijah, who was expected to return to earth someday to die like the rest of humanity. Elijah had been snatched up to heaven in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire in a whirlwind. See Second Book of Kings, chapter two. John answers, “I am not!” They ask, “Are you the Prophet?” This is a reference to Deuteronomy 18:15-19. There Moses promises the People of Israel that the Lord would raise up a “prophet like me from among you.” Then a command, “Listen to him!” The Baptizer answers curtly as if annoyed, “No!” Next question, “So who are you? We have to bring an answer to those who sent us.” Here the Gospel of John joins the other gospels in narrating the Baptizer’s mysterious answer, a quote from Second Isaiah 40, the mysterious “voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!” This response was explained in last Sunday’s commentary where it appeared in both the first reading and the gospel.
Did the religious authorities expect Elijah or the Christ, or the Prophet to baptize? Since John had already denied that he was any of the above, the next question, “So why are you baptizing?” This gives the opportunity to the author of John’s gospel to proclaim, as he often does, the superiority of Jesus over John and the superiority of Christian baptism over the penitential rite of the Baptizer, when he depicts the Baptizer saying, “I baptize with water….” Then he implies the real baptism is coming, “…but there is one among you whom you do not recognize…, whose sandal straps I am unworthy to untie.” One wishes that the author of John’s gospel had added the words which Luke and Matthew add, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”