Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10; James 5:7-10; Matt 11:2-11
The superb exaltation of the first reading must be put into the context of the preceding chapter, which was a blood curdling denunciation of a neighboring tribe — the Edomites. The land of Edom lay to the east and south of the Kingdom of Judah. Isaiah 34 speaks of the Lord’s intervention in the centuries-long friction between the Israelites and the Edomites. The sword of the Lord is gorged with blood. Slaughter gone wild! Other descriptions of the land of Edom after the Lord’s intervention: drenched with blood, gorged with fat (of the dead), streams turned into tar, dust into brimstone, endless fire and smoke, relegated to wild animals as its inhabitants. Suddenly the tone changes into chapter 35, today’s first reading. The land of Edom has now been given to the Israelites.
Destruction and wasteland is replaced with blooming vegetation — flowers, daffodils. The glory of the Lord is bestowed on this former desolation. Weary hands, trembling knees, faint hearts are encouraged to cheer up. God is on the way. The prophet’s oracle soars: “The eyes of the blind will be opened, deaf ears unsealed, the lame leaping like deer, the mute singing for joy.” (This part of the oracle will be used by Matthew and Luke as a “prediction” of the healing miracles of Jesus and the Apostles.) Water will abound in the desert in lakes and springs. A great highway will run the length of it. The fierce beasts that inhabited the land will be replaced with exiles ransomed by the Lord God. Either Isaiah himself or later editors saturated with patriotism centered on Jerusalem predict that the new inhabitants of Edom “will come to Zion (the temple hill) with eternal joy on their faces. No more sorrow or lament.” Now that’s real cheerleading at a time when the future of the Kingdom of Judah was in doubt. Why this passage during Advent? Because Advent is a time of joyful hope for the coming of God to his people in Jesus the Savior.
The Responsorial Psalm 146, picks up from the first reading the healing activities promised by God’s restoration of joy. God is faithful, brings justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, frees captives (exiles or unjustly imprisoned). God gives sight to the blind, helps the oppressed stand up straight, loves the just, protects strangers. Orphans and widows are the Lord’s special concern. The chosen verses end with a blessing or praise of God, “The Lord shall reign forever.” As Jesus taught us in the Our Father, first comes praise of God, then the “gimme” part. So it is also in this Responsorial Psalm ending with the “gimme,” “Lord, come and save us.” Thus we see ancient texts with ancient contexts now serving as a prayer for the coming of Jesus which Advent anticipates.
The second reading is taken from the Letter of James. In the context the author has just denounced and cursed the wealthy who have everything yet defraud their workers of a just wage. Then James turns to the poor among his readers. He begs of them to have the kind of patience that a farmer has as he waits for rain on his planted crops. Although James’ phrase, “The coming of the Lord is at hand” was intended as an assurance of God’s retribution on those who oppressed the poor, in today’s liturgy it gets a new meaning. It has become a proclamation no longer of the Lord God of retribution, but the Lord God’s salvation sent to his people in the birth of his Son, Jesus the Christ. Finally, the author closes with proposing another example of patience to be imitated, “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Even a hurried reading of the prophets shows us the sometimes total frustration with their lack of success.
Today’s gospel is the second installment of Advent gospels promoting and describing the miss-ion of the Baptizer. The context is near the approaching end of John’s mission. John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and of parts east of the Jordan. The Baptizer either doubts his conviction that Jesus was the one sent by God or he wanted Jesus to convince his (John’s) disciples that his proclamation of Jesus was correct. So John sends a delegation to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus answers directly, “Go and tell John: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are resurrected, and the poor hear the good news.” (Note the echoes of Isaiah 35 in our first reading and Responsorial Psalm.) Jesus adds a beatitude or blessing on John, or on John’s disciples, or on future believers, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense (scandal) at me.”
As John’s delegation departs, Jesus proclaims his approval of John’s mission. He notes the crowds that had been drawn into the wilderness to see and hear John and receive John’s baptism. What did they seek? A cattail swaying in the breeze (a man without conviction)? Or were they looking for someone in fine clothing, such as are found in the wardrobe of kings? A prophet? Matthew already described the Baptizer in last Sunday’s gospel so that readers and hearers would know that John was a prophet even like the great Elijah. But Jesus goes beyond the prophets in the praise of John, “Yes, I tell you, more than a prophet.” He first praises John in words echoing an oracle of the prophet Malachy (460 B.C.) describing the prophet Elijah, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you. He will prepare your way before you.” Thus the gospel sanctifies the Baptizer’s title as “Forerunner of Christ.” More interesting is the fact that Malachy envisions Elijah preparing the path for God himself to come to the earth to set things right. In envisioning John as Elijah, is Matthew also proclaiming Jesus not only as God’s intervention in the world but as God? Jesus’ final words are climactic but followed with a caution, “Among those born of women, none is greater than John.” That’s the good news for those who had begun to proclaim John as Messiah. But Matthew adds a caution, “. . . yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Meaning: those who proclaim Jesus as Messiah have it right.”