By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Response: Psalm from Luke 1:46-50, 53-54; Second Reading: 1 Thess 5:16-24; Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Today’s reading is taken from the third part of the Book of Isaiah. The time is approximately 516 B.C. The situation is as follows. The exile in Babylon ended sometime between 540-538 B.C. At that time the former Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great. It was Cyrus’ policy to allow exiled peoples to return to their homelands, to rebuild the temples to their gods, so that those gods would bless Cyrus. The Israelites in exile were therefore also permitted to return and to rebuild the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. The new temple was built over some years and dedicated in 516 B.C. On the 1st Sunday of Advent we learned that the prophet called Trito- (or Third) Isaiah was active in Jerusalem at that time. In that first reading we heard the prophet responding to the general decline of morality. This Sunday’s first reading from the oracles of the same prophet are more upbeat.
The first verses describe the calling of the prophet to his mission. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor, heal the broken-hearted, proclaim liberty to captives, release to prisoners, and to announce a Jubilee Year and vindication by our God.” A Jubilee Year happened every 50th year. Among other benefits, during this year any enslaved Israelite was freed. Debt slavery was common, though there may have been other causes. The prophet envisions a special Jubilee. As cheerleader for a depressed society, he raps, “As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice spring up before all the nations.” Basically he is saying, “We will again be No. 1.” He promises vindication by the Lord God. God will repair what has been injured as he restores justice. The opening verses of this reading should sound familiar to Bible readers and preachers. Luke 4:16-19 depicts Jesus reading this section of Isaiah before beginning his sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, “The Spirt of the Lord has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor, etc.” With some changes in the wording, the ancient oracles of Trito-Isaiah are given new and more spiritual meaning as Luke uses them to proclaim Jesus’ spiritual mission of bringing freedom and redemption from sin.
The response Psalm is part of Mary’s hymn (the Magnificat) in Luke’s gospel. The joy of the prophet in our first reading, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord,” enters the response of the people to the verses of the hymn, “My soul rejoices in my God.” Because of the joy expressed in the liturgy of this day, this Sunday is known as Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. We see the intimate connection between the Old and New Testaments, especially evident in Luke the musician’s composing of Mary’s hymn. The thoughts are a retooling or an echo of the hymn attributed to Hannah, mother of Samuel in the 1st Book of Samuel 2:1-10. Third Isiah proclaimed, “We shall again be No. 1!” Hannah and Mary proclaim, “We shall overcome!”
The second reading is part of the oldest written document in the New Testament, the 1st Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. Written about 50 A.D., the letter responds to the uneasiness of these Christians because some of them had died before the expected return of Jesus. So what about them? Paul answers their question in another part of the letter. Today, however, the theme is rejoicing. The opening words of this reading, “Rejoice always.” After advising them about their liturgies, Paul prays that they will be “preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” For them that meant Jesus’ second coming. For us, his first coming, his Incarnation.
The gospel of the Second Sunday of Advent described the call, the mission, the results, plus the diet and wardrobe of the Baptizer according to Mark. On this Sunday, we hear of the Baptizer according to the Gospel of John. It introduces the Baptizer as “a man sent from God.” Hard to beat that as a recommendation! His mission: “He came to bear witness to the light, so that all might believe through him.” Jesus is the Light, and the Baptizer is the means God chose to introduce him to the world. A greater role than this is hard to imagine and is high praise indeed. Too high, it seems, for some early Christians. Therefore, John puts the Baptizer in his place. He insists, “He was not the light but came to bear witness to the light.” The problem: Luke 3:15 tells us that the crowds flocking to the Baptizer thought that he might be the Messiah (Christ). Luke and the Gospel of John even avoid saying that John baptized Jesus. That is how sensitive this issue was. There were disciples of the Baptizer long after he was martyred, and long after Christianity took hold with its proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah. Thus, at the end of today’s gospel, the author once more returns to the theme of John being less than Jesus, when the Baptizer says, “I baptize with water, but there is One among you whom you do not recognize, whose sandal strap I am unworthy to untie.”
The mid-section of this gospel reading tells us that the Baptizer was in trouble with authorities in Jerusalem. That would be the High Council, the Sanhedrin. This was a body of 70 men of power and wealth or learning. They governed in religious and some civil matters as permitted by Roman occupation. Few establishments would tolerate a free spirit like John. He had no authorization from them. A delegation from Jerusalem demands to know if John himself might be the Messiah. Or was he Elijah, the 9th century B.C. prophet snatched up to heaven and now returned to die in the person of the Baptizer? Or was John perhaps the prophet, a reference to Deut. 18:15-18, which speaks of a successor to Moses, “to whom you shall listen?” John denies it all. Instead he identifies himself as he does in the other three gospels, quoting Isaiah 40, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert. Make straight the way of the Lord.” The author of the gospel has given John great dignity but also put him in his place as second to Jesus.