Second Sunday of Advent, Year B



Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Response: Psalm 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14; Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-14; Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

The first reading is from the second part of the Book of Isaiah, called Deutero or Second Isaiah.

The oracles of this unknown prophet are found in chapters 40-55. Another name for these chapters is The Book of Consolation. The prophet strikes a theme of consolation in the first line, which also begins today’s first reading. “Be consoled, My People. Be consoled!” What situation is envisioned in these prophetic oracles? The time is about 540 B.C. The Israelites have been in exile in Babylon (today Iraq) since the early part of the sixth century. The exiling process of the Kingdom of Judah stretched from 598-587 B.C. Forty-some years later, God raised up a prophet to console his people in exile and  give them hope of a promised return to their homeland in the former Kingdom of Judah. What God promises through his prophet from the first lines of the oracles, he completes in the final chapter in these words, “My word . . . shall accomplish that which I intend . . . . For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace,” Isaiah 55:11-12.

The prophet does not let the exiled people completely off the hook. He reminds them why the Lord brought about their exile, “She (Israel) has received from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins” He reassures them, “Her time of service (penance) is at an end. Her iniquity has been pardoned.” The prophet hears a voice commanding him to instruct the exiles. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” It is a call to build what we would today call an Interstate Highway System. The instructions sound up-to-date. Besides building the road straight, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low, the rugged land level, and the rough country a broad valley.” Of course we are hearing Hebrew poetry, and poetry does not have to adhere to concrete reality. The sense of the oracle is not only a physical return to a homeland, but a call to them and to us for repentance and a return to the worship of God. Thus the reading ends, “Here is your God.”

Psalm 85 carries on the theme of consolation by referring to God’s kindness. Four times the response cries out, “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.” We hear the echoes of a proclamation of peace with which the first reading ended, “I will hear what God pro-claims, the Lord — for he proclaims peace to his people.” A well-known verse follows, “Kindness and truth shall meet. Justice and peace shall kiss.” In other words, there is no peace without justice. The Psalmist’s rapturous poetry continues, “Truth shall spring out of the earth, and just-ice shall look down from heaven.” He envisions justice as a person, echoing the command of the voice in the first reading to prepare the way of the Lord. “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps.”

The second reading is from the 2nd Letter of Peter. Advent is not only a time of preparation to celebrate the birth of Jesus at his first arrival, but as we saw in last Sunday’s readings, it is also a preparation for his final arrival. The earliest Christians, including those who authored the New Testament, were convinced that Jesus would return quickly. As is undeniable, he did not. Christians were therefore ridiculed for empty hopes. The author of this letter responds to the ridicule by reminding hearers that time does not exist with the Lord, “a thousand years are like one day.”

Why is the final arrival of Jesus delayed? “The Lord is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” A theme from the first reading reappears, an assurance that God’s promise will be fulfilled, “But the day of the Lord will come.”

The gospel reading from Mark is about John the Baptizer. That all four gospels initiate their proclamation with the mission of John indicates his importance in God’s plan of salvation for the human race. First, Mark echoes a description of the 9th century B.C. prophet Elijah found in an oracle of the 5th century B.C. prophet Malachy. This he applies to the Baptizer, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you. He will prepare your way.” As Mark continues introducing the Baptizer, he next applies to him the words of Isaiah 40:3, words we already heard spoken to the 540 B.C. prophet we call Second Isaiah. These words, with minor changes, Mark redirects to describe the mission of John. “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths.’” John’s preaching drew crowds, “The whole countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him . . . .” (Some readers may recall the short-lived Penance liturgies of some decades ago, to which all flocked for general absolution, until Rome reminded us that sacramental confession is necessary for serious sins.)

For a description of John’s wardrobe, Mark echoes a description of the clothing of the prophet Elijah as given in 2 Kings 1:8. He writes, “John was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist.” John’s diet: “He ate locusts (grasshoppers) and wild honey.” An acceptable weight control diet! Winged insects were forbidden as food in Leviticus 11:20-23. An exception was made for locusts, grasshoppers, crickets. On what basis? “You may eat those which have legs above their feet with which to leap upon the earth.” Hoppers, yes. Flyers, not so much. Locusts were eaten raw (sushi?) or cooked. They were also dried and lined up on a thread as snacks. Sometimes they were ground, mixed with honey or dates, and spread on bread. Locust butter! Healthy? According to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, locusts are 75 percent protein, 3.4 percent fats, 7.5 percent carbohydrates, plus small amounts of riboflavin and nicotinic acid, rich in minerals — iron, calcium, sulphur. Mark ends his introduction of the Baptizer by citing his humility, as John says, “I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the strings of his (Jesus’) sandals.”

Then the distinction between John’s baptism and Christian baptism: “I have baptized you with water. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”