Thursday, December 04, 2014

"Prepare the Way of the Lord": Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent

During the time of Advent the Church both looks backwards and forwards. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 524)
In other words, during Advent the Church both reflects on (1) the coming of Christ in the Incarnation and (2) the future coming of Christ at the end of time.

Only by keeping this two-fold perspective in mind can we fully understand the lectionary readings chosen for us this Sunday.

As we shall see, by meditating on the former we learn lessons about how to prepare best for the latter. John the Baptist, for example, becomes not only the one to prepare the way for the Incarnation but also a model for what it means to prepare for the Second Coming.

FIRST READING: Isaiah 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 fil we led 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.
Isaiah is here announcing the hope for the future deliverance of Israel from exile. The language, however, draws from Israel's past. Specifically, Isaiah describes the future restoration of Israel in terms reminiscent of the Exodus. 
  • The people of God are told that their time of "service" (i.e., slavery) has come to an end
  • A way [Greek: hodos] is prepared in the wilderness 
  • The Lord's glory will be revealed (recall the cloud of glory that led Israel in the wilderness)
  • The language of getting up to a "high mountain", while pointing to Zion, also recalls Mt. Sinai
Scholars, therefore, speak of the "New Exodus" imagery in this passage. 

God is going to make a clear path in the wilderness. Whatever obstacle appears to stand in his way will be overcome: 
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.
We should also underscore who it is who is coming to Israel to bring this deliverance. We might expect such a passage to announce the coming of the Messiah. Yet no human figure is mentioned. Here the deliverer is none other than God himself: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD. 

All of this is described in terms of "glad tidings"--"good news", i.e., "Gospel" ("Gospel", of course, means "good news")! Yes, the Gospel is announced in Isaiah. As we shall see in the Gospel reading, Mark 1 seems to highlight this fact. 

To sum up: the main theme of the First Reading is the hope of the New Exodus, in which God will come to save his people and bring the righteous their reward. The lectionary readings have us reflect on how this hope was fulfilled in ministry of Jesus but also how it awaits a final realization at the end of time.  

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 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 to his people.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice 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 shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
The message of this psalm obviously coheres well with the First Reading. As we saw, the former is announcing the hope of the New Exodus. Such imagery is reinforced here with a psalm praying for God to bring salvation and bring his benefits.

Notice also the way the psalm anticipates the coming of the Lord: Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps. 

As should be clear, this psalm can be applied to both the first coming of Christ--in which he inaugurates the age of salvation--and the final consumption of history, when God's final victory over evil will be realized.

The psalm seems to be used in the lectionary with both applications in view--looking backwards and to the future.

SECOND READING: 2 Peter 3:8-14
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved,that with the Lord one day is like a thousand yearsand 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 perishbut 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 roarand 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 flamesand the elements melted by fire.But according to his promisewe await new heavens and a new earthin which righteousness dwells.Therefore, beloved, since you await these things,be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.
This section of 2 Peter appears to be written to a warning to Christians who were concerned that the coming of Christ had not occurred soon enough. Had the Lord "delayed" in fulfilling his promise?

The author warns his readers against drawing such a conclusion. He assures us that the Second Coming will take place--but Christians must be patient and not insist that the Lord work on their timetable. 

In fact, 2 Peter explains, the Lord has chosen not to come yet, in part, to show his mercy: he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish. . . 

Make no mistake about it, 2 Peter is clear that this world will come to an end; there will be a "new heavens and a new earth". Christians, however, must await that day patiently, remaining faithful so that they can be found "without spot or blemish". 

The latter language is cultic language--sacrificial animals are to be "without blemish". Perhaps the author is suggesting that Christians, by enduring suffering, make themselves sacrifices to the Lord (cf. Rom. 12:1). 

That such imagery is intended is especially likely given the reference to the coming of the "new heavens and the new earth" in the immediate context. Such language is taken from Isaiah 66. There, however, those who are gathered to the Lord, are described as sacrifices:
And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord. “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your descendants and your name remain. (Isa 66:20-22)
GOSPEL: Mark 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 1 opens by describing the "good news" ("Gospel", Gk. euangelion)
"The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, 'Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; 3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. . . " (Mark 1:1-3).
It is important to note that in English translations, verses 1 and 2 are separated. However, as other scholars have noted, Mark seems to be suggesting that the "Gospel", the "good news" or "good tidings", was already proclaimed by Isaiah in Israel's scriptures. In other words, we could read the first couple of verses this way:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God as it is written in Isaiah the prophet. . . 
As mentioned above, the passage from Isaiah 40 itself contains the idea of "good tidings"--Isaiah announced the future proclamation of the "Gospel" (euangelion):
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings [Gk euangelizomenos]; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings [Gk euangelizomenos], lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9)
Moreover, Isaiah announced that it is God who is coming. Mark, therefore, seems to underscore that this hope is fulfilled in the coming of Christ.

Indeed, John the Baptist's statement seems to further underscore the divinity of Jesus. John proclaims that the one coming after him--Jesus--will "baptize you with the Holy Spirit".

The language of a future "baptism" of the Spirit seems to evoke the language of Joel, who announced that God would one day come to "pour out" his Spirit on his people:
"And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh. . ." (Joel 2:28)
In short, in Christ Mark announces the hopes for the future coming of God have been realized.

How does John prepare for this coming? By announcing the need for repentance and through a baptismal ministry.

John the Baptist himself embodies a life of repentance, devoting himself to fasting (he eats only locusts and wild honey) and spiritual asceticism (he clothes himself in camel's hair).

Why is this reading chosen for the second week of Advent?

Christians are themselves to prepare for the future coming of the Lord. We must repent. The baptism of John foreshadows the the sacramental ministry of the Church, through which we are baptized with the Spirit and enabled to renounce sin in our lives.

Finally, we must mention what is often called the "middle coming" of Christ--his coming to the Church in the eucharistic assembly.

In the book of Revelation, Christ links his coming to a "meal":
"Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev 3:20).
Scholars such as David Aune have rightly seen here a eucharistic reference--what other meal could possibly be in view?[1]

The lectionary readings are inviting us to prepare to greet the Lord this Sunday, knowing that by making ourselves ready to greet him in the Lord's Supper we are also preparing for the day that will come "like a thief in the night".

[1] David E. Aune, Revelation (3 vols.; Word Biblical Commentary 52; Dallas: Word, 1997), 189.


Alex Wangome said...

"...I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me." Had never seen this in the Eucharistic light but it indeed speaks of it.
Thanks for these insightful reflections.

Alex Wangome said...

"...I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me." Had never seen this in the Eucharistic light but it indeed speaks of it.
Thanks for these insightful reflections.

Nicholas Hardesty said...

Now that we have entered into the Catechumenate stage of the RCIA process, I will be relying on these reflections heavily when I "break open the word" with our candidates during the Sunday Mass. Keep up the good work! These reflections are a goldmine.