Third Sunday of Advent, Year A



Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; Response: Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10; Second Reading: James 5:7-10; Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11

The first reading is the second part of a couplet, or pair of oracles (rappings), attributed to Isaiah of Jerusalem. The first oracle (not part of our reading), is a chain of curses against Edom, the home of the Edomites across the Dead Sea southeast of Jerusalem. There was a long history of tension between Israel and Edom. The worst: when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 587-86 B.C., the Edomites joined the forces of Babylon. Though this was long after the time of Isaiah (740-680s B.C.), insults are not forgotten in the Middle East and may have influenced the editing of this pair of oracles long after Isaiah. Some thoughts from the first oracle: the Lord’s sword is gorged with blood, slaughter gone wild, gorged with fat (of the dead); streams turned into tar; dust into sulphur, endless fire and smoke. The tone suddenly changes as we move into today’s first reading.

That same cursed land of Edom is now subjugated to Israel. Destruction and wasteland have been replaced with blooming vegetation. The glory of the Lord is now upon that land. Weary hands, trembling knees and faint hearts are encouraged to cheer up because God is on the way. Here is the reason this oracle was chosen for today’s liturgy: “The eyes of the blind will be opened, deaf ears unsealed, the lame leaping like deer, the mute (like the non-singers at Sunday Masses) are now singing for joy.” Matthew will use this passage as predictive of Jesus’ ministry in today’s gospel. Lakes and springs replace desert, a great highway through the middle. Best of all, the people now in Edom will come to Jerusalem with eternal joy on their faces. No more sorrow or lamentation. Spectacular cheerleading at a time when the independence of the kingdom of Judah was in peril. Still, a good choice for an Advent reading – a time of joyful hope for the coming of our God in the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 146 is a hymn of praise to God our King. It was chosen as a response to the first reading because it picks up the theme of miracles of healing we saw in Isaiah above. The Psalmist sings, “The Lord gives sight to the blind, raises up those bowed down” (a hope for us elders with our bent backs). But that is not all that the Lord God will do. He keeps faith with us forever, brings justice to the oppressed, feeds the hungry, sets free the unjustly imprisoned, protects strangers, sustains widows and orphans, (who were without a security net and preyed upon). The Lord’s kingdom will not be a passing kingdom. “The Lord shall reign forever . . . through all generations.”

In the second reading, from the Letter of James, the author has just engaged in a blood-curdling denunciation of wealthy exploiters of the weak and the poor. “Weep and howl for the miseries which will come upon you. The rust on your gold and silver will … eat your flesh like fire.” He attacks the withholding of wages earned by the poor. The cursing gets ever more violent when suddenly he turns to the laborers. “Be patient …until the coming of the Lord.” The return of Jesus to set things right was expected in their lifetimes. So they were taught by Paul and others. If they had only known that soon did not always mean “soon,” they might not have been receptive of waiting for justice. They are like the farmer, says James, who patiently waits for rain so crops can produce their fruits. Although James believed that the “coming of the Lord was at hand,” it was not. Perhaps the patience of the workers showed strains and they turned against one another. Thus, James writes, “Do not complain about one another, that you may not be judged.”

Like last Sunday, the liturgy directs us to the mission of John the Baptizer. He has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and parts east of the Jordan River. Both Mark and Matthew imply that Herodias, the unlawful wife of Herod, was somehow involved in this injustice. Flavius Josephus, however, tells us that Herod imprisoned John because of the Baptizer’s popularity and the fear that John could lead a rebellion against Roman occupation. Both sources may be historically correct. In prison, the Baptizer hears about Jesus’ ongoing ministry. He seems puzzled. If some of John’s preaching was as fiery as we saw in last Sunday’s gospel, he could have expected a violent Jesus. Instead, Jesus presented a ministry of healing and reaching out to the poor and the handicapped. It is likely that John had thought of Jesus’ role as that of a returned Elijah the prophet. Such a role for Elijah is described in the 5th century B.C. prophet Malachy. There, the Lord describes “my messenger who will suddenly come to his temple … but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? He will be like a refiner’s fire or like the (caustic) soap of one who works with wool.”

Does this give us a picture of Jesus’ ministry in our gospels? Not usually. The cleansing of the temple and the forceful dialogues between Jesus and his enemies had not yet happened. So John must have said to himself, (in our current colloquialism), “Like, what is going on here?” He sends his disciples for clarification. They ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” Jesus responds with a list of his works of healing, restoring life and preaching to the poor. He adds a caution with a blessing, “Blessed is the man who is not put off by me.” Meaning: Do not let your own presumptions guide you in this matter. As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus praises John. What drew those crowds of people into the wilderness? It was not for a wishy-washy flip-flopper, nor for a man in a palace, (perhaps a crack at Herod). Did they go to see a prophet? “Yes, and more than a prophet.” Jesus quotes from the prophet Malachy as noted above. If John had thought that Jesus returned in the role of Elijah, Jesus reversed that thought by describing the Baptizer as the prophet Elijah. Great praise! There is more. “Of all men born, none was greater than John the Baptizer!” Then a problem, as Jesus says, “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” One possibility: when the gospels were written, there was a debate between disciples of the Baptizer and Christians as to who was the real Messiah – John or Jesus. This could be Matthew’s answer to that debate. “We are No. 1. You are No. 2.”