Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Response: Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54; Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28

In our Isaiah reading, the prophet describes receiving a mission from God. This is given by the Lord anointing and giving the prophet His spirit. This prophetic mission is described by the phrase “he has sent me,” followed by the purpose: “to bring glad tiding,” “to heal,” “to proclaim liberty,” “to announce a year of favor.” This is what the prophet is sent to proclaim. The recipients of these words are those most in need of God’s favor: “the poor,” “the brokenhearted,” and “the captives/prisoners.” The promised blessings will arrive as “a year of favor” and “a day of vindication.” God will act decisively, and that time is near.

“I rejoice heartily in the Lord” (v. 10) expresses the prophet’s gratitude for God’s deliverance from suffering. God’s deliverance is expressed with imagery: “a robe of salvation,” and “a mantle of justice” in which “he has clothed/wrapped me.” These images express God’s protection. The bride/bridegroom imagery expresses also God’s loving adornment of his people. The image of a growing garden anticipates “justice and praise” among God's people. Importantly, the oppressive nations will be witnesses to this: “before all nations.”

These verses from Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians are near the end of his letter. Paul is strongly encouraging them to rejoice and give thanks for the salvation that they have received in Christ Jesus. Note the emphasis: Rejoice “always.” Give thanks “in all circumstances.” Pray “without ceasing.” The normal ups-and-downs of life are unimportant compared to the immensity of the gift that they have received in Christ. No earthly sorrow should distract them from rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks.

Paul had a great affection for the Christians in Thessalonica, to whom Paul had brought the good news of Christ Jesus. Their faithfulness to Christ is recognized by Paul early in the letter: “you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia… your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything” (1Thes 1:7-8). The good example of the Thessalonians’ faith helps Paul to proclaim the Gospel to other communities.

In our reading, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to remain faithful: “retain what is good” and “refrain from every kind of evil.” Then, Paul offers a beautiful prayer for them, asking God to “make you perfectly holy” that they may “be preserved blameless.” Paul makes this prayer in view of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That day will be the fulfillment of the hope for which we already rejoice, pray, and give thanks. Finally, God’s faithfulness is invoked as an assurance that God will accomplish that for which Paul prays.

Our Gospel today is two sections from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Both sections describe the role of John the Baptist. First, 1:6-8 is taken from the Prologue of John’s Gospel (1:1-18), which is a powerful, poetic introduction to the key teachings of John’s Gospel about Jesus Christ. The central message of John’s Prologue is that God has decisively acted by sending his only Son into the world to redeem it.

Our Gospel today gives the three Prologue verses dedicated to explaining John the Baptist’s role within God’s decisive action/plan. “John was sent from God” is followed by the purpose for which he was sent: “to testify to the light, so that all might believe.” John “was not the light.” Rather, Christ Jesus is the light. The preceding verses contrast Christ, the light, with darkness. The context is John 1:1-5, which invokes Genesis’ creation imagery. God sending his only Son into the world is a decisive redemption of the world which God created. The Word, Jesus Christ, fully God, was present “in the beginning” – before creation itself.

Next, our Gospel skips ahead to the later verses 19-28 of John’s first chapter. Again, the emphasis is on “the testimony of John.” (This repeats verse 7, which says that John was sent “to testify” to the light, Jesus.). The question asked of John is direct: “Who are you?” The “priests and Levites” recognize that John’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance has the purpose of preparing the people for a new age of God’s action – in which the Messiah/Christ is expected to be sent by God. This naturally raises the question if John himself is the Messiah. John clearly denies this: “I am not the Christ.”

So, they ask John if he is instead Elijah or “the Prophet?” These questions recall two prophecies. First is Malachy 4:5 (NAB 3:23): “Behold, I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes.” Second is Deut 18:15, in which Moses says: “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you.” These prophecies provoked anticipation that the Messianic age of God’s redemption would be marked by the return of Elijah or by the sending of “the Prophet” like Moses. John denies being Elijah or the Prophet. But John’s baptizing announces the beginning of this new age of God’s action. Thus the Pharisees demand to know why John baptizes, since he denies being either the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. John responds by pointing to another: “the one who is coming after me.” John’s proclamation leads into the next section of John’s Gospel – when John sees Jesus, he exclaims: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Benedictine Father Paul Nord is a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, and teaches at Saint Meinrad Seminary. His Sunday Scripture columns are © Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.