Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Courtship Continues: Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent

It may seem counterintuitive, but Advent has a courtship aspect to it.

Waiting for Christmas is like waiting for one’s wedding. A wedding unites two persons “as one flesh.” At Christmas, the LORD, bridegroom of Israel (Isaiah 54:4-8), unites his divine nature with our human nature, and the two become “one flesh,” as it were, in the incarnation.

Advent is like a courtship that anticipates the Christmas nuptials.

Subtle nuptial themes run in the background of this Sunday’s readings.

The First Reading, taken from Isaiah 61, divides into two parts (61:1-2 and 61:10-11). In the first part (Isa 61:1-2), Isaiah’s mysterious “servant of the Lord” is speaking in the first person. The identity of this “servant” was obscure in antiquity, as we can see from Acts 8:34, but Jesus clearly identifies himself as the “servant” in Luke 4:18-21, quoting the very verses from our First Reading.

Reading 1 Is 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.
In these verses, the “servant” speaks of being “anointed” with the Spirit of God, thus identifying himself with the “shoot of Jesse” of Isaiah 11:1-5, the coming Davidic King who will be as wise as Solomon. The description of the roles for which he has been anointed read like a description of Jesus’ ministry: to preach “glad tidings” (Good News, the “gospel,” the euangelion in Greek) to the “poor” (“Blessed are the poor in spirit …”), to heal, to proclaim liberty …

The “proclamation of liberty” and the announcing of the “year of favor from the Lord” are references to the ancient jubilee year, about which I wrote my dissertation. By the time of these prophecies of Isaiah, there was no longer interest in implementing the jubilee year as a piece of civil legislation. Rather, the jubilee had become an eschatological symbol of the final age, when God would enact freedom for his people, particularly freedom from their sins. So, in the famous document from the Dead Sea Scrolls, 11QMelchizedek (11Q13), we read a non-canonical prophecy that in the final age, a certain “Melchizedek” (who is identified with “God” [elohim] at one point in the text) will return and proclaim a jubilee year of forgiveness of iniquity.

The second part of the First Reading may be in a different voice than the first two verses. Possibly the prophet is now speaking, giving a doxology for God’s salvation brought by the “servant.” Speaking on behalf of God’s people, the prophet gives thanks that God has clothed him “like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels.” The nuptial images are not accidental. The saving acts for which the prophet gives thanks are indications that God has renewed his nuptial covenant with his people, as he promised (see Isaiah 54:4-8).
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.
The Responsorial Psalm this Sunday is actually the Magnificat from Luke 1:46-54. This is appropriate, as the Magnificat was sung by Our Lady in the months leading up to the birth of Christ, during Our Blessed Mother’s personal Advent. In the Magnificat, the Blessed Mother identifies herself as one of the “poor” by calling herself a “lowly servant” and (by implication) including herself among the “hungry.” She is part of the “poor” for whom God’s anointed servant will come to proclaim tidings: indeed, she is the icon these poor. She is the mystical “spouse of the Spirit,” who, in an entirely singular way, will experience in herself the nuptial covenant between the Lord and his people.

The background of the Magnificat is the covenantal framework of the Old Testament Scriptures. The “mercy” of which Our Lady sings is the Greek translation of “hesed,” a key concept of the Psalms which can be rendered “covenant love” or “covenant fidelity”
Responsorial Psalm Lk 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:
R. 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.
R. 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,
R. My soul rejoices in my God.
The Second Reading finds St. Paul exhorting us, in a sense, to imitate Our Blessed Mother by “rejoicing always.” Like her, we can raise our voices in thanks for the salvation God has won for us. St. Paul continues by uttering a prayer that God may make us “perfectly holy … entirely—spirit, soul, and body—preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In light of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception this past Thursday, note how the description of being “perfectly holy … preserved blameless” is such a fitting description of Our Mother. Notice also how it accords with the description of the Bride of Christ in Ephesians 5:26, whom Christ “cleansed … by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

St. Paul wishes us to share the purity and holiness of the Bride of Christ, perfectly realized in Our Blessed Mother, who serves as an exemplar for all of us. This purity and holiness should characterize our waiting for the “coming ['advent'] of our Lord Jesus Christ”—whether that is his liturgical coming at Christmas, his personal coming for each one of us, or his final coming at the end of time.
Reading 2 1 Thes 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.
In the Gospel Reading, John the Baptist denies that he is the “anointed one” (messiach or christos) spoken of in Isaiah 61:1-2 and other passages. Instead, he is merely “the voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord!” This passage from Isaiah 40:3 serves as a literary introduction to Isaiah 40-66, the second half of the Book of Isaiah, understood in antiquity as a long description of the “latter days” or final age, which would include the coming of the Messiah. John identifies himself with this introduction of Isaiah 40. John is an introduction incarnate, a prologue in person, a foreword in the flesh.
Gospel Jn 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.
Many are confused by the fact that John denies being Elijah, although elsewhere he is identified as Elijah even by Jesus himself. As St. Thomas would say, we have to make a distinction here. John is not Elijah in the sense of Elijah raised from the dead or reincarnate; thus he answers “No” to the questioning Pharisees. However, he is Elijah in the sense that he goes forth “in the spirit and the power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). Thus, Luke 1:17 is the key passage for understanding the relationship between John and that great prophet of old.

John tells the Pharisees that among them is one they “do not recognize.” John will declare this “unrecognized one” to be the definitive Bridegroom two chapters later (John 3:29). The Pharisees never did recognize him, although even the blind could see who it was (John 9:30-33). During this Advent, do we fail to recognize Christ among us, with us? Or can we truly say with John: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world …”?


Anonymous said...

Splendid reflection! I wonder if one could tie the Gospel more closely to the responsorial here. Cornelius a Lapide makes a parallel between John's "I am not..." (ego ouk eimi), and Our Lord's recurring "I am..." (ego eimi). Our Lord is He who IS in comparison with Him we creatures "are not". If original sin was the refusal to recognize this, then it seems that the Magnificat is a perfect reversal of the sinful attitude.

R B said...

"Are you the Prophet?" Is this a reference to Mohammed? What prophet are the Jews asking about???

John Bergsma said...

@sancrucensis: Wonderful observations! I posted a thank-you comment a week ago but it did not take.
@RB: No, it's 600 years too early for Mohammed. "The Prophet" is a reference to "The Prophet Like Moses," an end-times figure that Jews and Samaritans were awaiting, based on the promise in Deuteronomy 18:15 and following.