Dec 15, 2019: 3rd Sunday of Advent (A)

one-does-not-live-on-bread-alone

Introduction

Traditionally, the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Joy. The name originates from the Latin word for “rejoice,” the first word of the introit of this day’s Mass:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.

which translates as:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.  (Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1)

Gaudete Sunday is a counterpart to Laetare Sunday of Lent, both of which provide a joyful pause about midway through an otherwise penitential season and signifies the nearness of the Lord’s coming.

The message of the readings and the anticipation that Christmas is nearing inspire in us great joy.  The rose-colored vestments worn by the celebrants of the Mass and the rose-colored candle of the Advent wreath serve as visual reminders of our rejoicing in the midst of our spiritual preparations for the coming of Christ.

1st Reading – Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10

The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.

Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.

The Old Testament readings during Advent are prophecies about the Messiah and the Messianic age. This week we read again from Isaiah, the prophet who offered hope to the Jewish people in the 8th century BC.

Isaiah prophesied that all Palestine would be laid waste by Yahweh because of the sinfulness of the people, yet there would be a remnant who will be the inheritors of the promises made to David. This remnant was promised ultimate renewal and consolation.

Today’s reading is an oracle of salvation that depicts two ways in which this promised renewal by God is manifested: the barren wilderness will be filled with new life, and those who suffer physical maladies will be healed of their infirmities.

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. 

The promised salvation will be seen first in the regeneration of the natural world.  Creation will be renewed.  This promised renewal is characterized by three images of wastelands bursting forth with life: desert (midbār), parched land (sîyâ), and steppe (‘ărābâ) / exult, rejoice, bloom.

They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song.

It is amazing what tremendous change even a little water can bring to dry and barren land.  It can work miracles; deserts can be transformed into oases.

The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;

In the promised renewal, land such as this will be blessed with the kind of fertility for which the northern part of the country was renowned, particularly the lush forest growth of Lebanon and Carmel, and with the fecundity of the land found in the Plain of Sharon.

They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.

“Glory” and “splendor” are divine attributes revealed in the actions of God.  This description is reminiscent of the first creation of life.

Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!

The proclamation “fear not” is a common expression found in many accounts of divine revelation (e.g., Genesis 15:1, Joshua 8:1, Isaiah 41:10).  It is spoken by God or a messenger of God to assuage the very natural trepidation one experiences in the presence of a supernatural phenomenon.

Here, as part of a promise of salvation, it is meant to encourage the fainthearted.  As we will see, it precedes the announcement of the coming of God as vindicator.

Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.

While in some situations this can be a terrifying announcement, here it is a message of salvation.  God may be coming in judgment for some, but for those to whom the prophet speaks, God is coming to bring new life.

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; Then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing.

Since God created everything in proper order, it was a common belief in the time of Isaiah that imperfection of any kind was a consequence of some form of human transgression. This was particularly true of physical infirmity, which was often considered evidence of the presence of evil forces in the world.  The person with the infirmity may be innocent of serious transgression, but it was believed that someone or something was responsible.  In such a world, healing would have been seen as the restoration of the proper order of creation.

By listing four types of healings (eyes, ears, legs, tongue), this passage is probably intended to represent any and all cures, whether physical or spiritual.  The cures symbolize the transformative power of God, who comes to save the people.

These signs of the coming of the Lord are the same signs Jesus will point out to John’s disciples in our gospel reading.

Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.

Ransom (pādâ) is a legal term implying transfer of ownership; it became associated with the cultic redemption of the firstborn.  Here the term signifies the unearned nature of their release.  Like the transformation and healing described earlier, the release and return of the exiles is a free gift from God.

God has promised to protect his people, and he will be faithful to that promise. The Lord will come to save his people.

This prophecy was first fulfilled when the Babylonian exile ended and the Israelites returned to the holy land. It was later fulfilled in a very unexpected way, in the coming of Jesus Christ.

2nd Reading – James 5:7-10

Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,
being patient with it
until it receives the early and the late rains.
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another,
that you may not be judged.
Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

For the first three weeks of Advent, the second readings help us interpret the meaning of the mystery of Christ and provide guidelines for how we are to behave while we await his second coming.

St. James is called “the younger” or “the less” to distinguish him from James, the brother of John (these brothers were often referred to as “the sons of Zebedee”). He was the son of Alphaeus (Cleophas) and Mary (a sister or other close relative of Mary, mother of Jesus). On account of his close familial kinship with Jesus, he is known as the “brother of the Lord.”

Some years after the Ascension, James was appointed Bishop of Jerusalem by his fellow apostles. St. Paul numbers him, along with Peter and John, among the Pillars of the Church (i.e., part of the inner circle).  He was called “the just” by his countrymen on account of the austerity of his life and his strict adherence to the Law of Moses. Josephus reports that he was stoned to death by order of the High Priest Ananus in the year 62 or 63 AD (Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1§197-203).

Sometime between 50 AD and his death, James wrote his epistle to the Jewish Christians living in Palestine and adjacent countries. Its immediate destination was probably Antioch, with its strong Jewish population. It was almost certainly written from Jerusalem, as it doesn’t seem that James ever left there.

In the short excerpt of this letter that comprises our reading today, patience is the dominant theme.

Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.

Like Isaiah, James is offering hope to people who are awaiting the coming of the Lord. However, the coming that they await is the second coming, when the Son of Man will appear in glory on the clouds of heaven.

Parousía, which means “coming” or “presence,” became a technical term for the future coming of Christ to inaugurate the definitive manifestation of God’s eternal dominion.

Because the exact time of this event was unknown, patience would be necessary until that day of fulfillment arrived.

See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. 

The example of the farmer waiting for his crops to grow is apt in several ways.  First, the ripening of the crops depends on the seasonal rains (early rains in October and November, late rains between March and May) over which the farmers have no control. Farmers scheduled sowing and reaping in accord with this climactic pattern, but the approach, duration, and extent of the rains themselves were out of their hands.

That being said, the farmers were far from passive. They worked hard to prepare the fields, removing stones, plowing the land, and sowing the seed. They wait, but if they only wait, and don’t do their part, there would be no harvest.

So it would be with the coming of the Lord.  Living life in accord with Christian principles is not easy, and there is seldom immediate gratification for such righteousness.

Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.

Farmers at least knew when to expect the rains, but Christians really had no idea of the time of the parousía.  James urgently insists here that the coming is “at hand,” but we know that eventually they had to interpret just what this might mean.  The longer they had to wait for his coming, the more significant patience became.

While they wait, James urges the people to make their hearts firm.

Do not complain, brothers, about one another, that you may not be judged.

A second admonishment warns against complaining about one another.  Reasons for the complaints are not given, but this is quite unnecessary — people can always find something to complain about.

Whatever the situation is, the audience is warned not to judge, lest they themselves be judged (see also Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37).

Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.

Once again, the imminence of the parousía is suggested.  This time Christ is characterized as a judge standing at the door, or before the gates.  It is an image that suggests the final judgment (see also Revelation 3:20).

James is reminding the early Christians, and us, that when the Lord comes we will each be held accountable for our actions. The best way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is to love one another.

“The just judge will give you the rewards of your patience and will punish your adversaries with what they deserve. He sits at the door where he can watch everything you do, and he will come quickly to give each one whatever he or she deserves.” [Saint Bede the Venerable (ca. A.D. 700), Concerning the Epistle of St. James]

Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Finally, believers are instructed to model the prophets in bearing the hardships of life and waiting patiently for the coming of the Lord.  It is unclear whether James is referring to the ancient prophets of Israel or to faithful Christians who preceded them.  Regardless, calling on these virtuous witnesses served as a reminder of the unavoidable hardships of life that every person must endure, and the patience with which we must wait with excitement for the parousía.

“James tells us to look to the prophets, who never did anything wrong and who spoke the words of God’s Spirit to the people but who nevertheless suffered a terrible end at the hands of unbelievers – Zechariah, Uriah and the Maccabees, for example, not to mention John the Baptist, Stephen, James the son of Zebedee and many others in the New Testament. They did not complain at such an end but were willing to endure it. Others put up with long labors without complaining, for example, Noah who spent a hundred years building his ark, and Moses, who took forty years to lead his people out of slavery and into the promised land.” [Saint Bede the Venerable (ca. A.D. 700), Concerning the Epistle of St. James]

Gospel – Matthew 11:2-11

When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

As they were going off,
Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John,
“What did you go out to the desert to see?
A reed swayed by the wind?
Then what did you go out to see?
Someone dressed in fine clothing?
Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.
Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?
Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
This is the one about whom it is written:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.
Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Each year, the figure of John the Baptist dominates the gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent. Last week’s gospel reading was from the third chapter of Matthew, in which John the Baptist announced the coming of one greater than he. This week we move to Matthew’s eleventh chapter, when John sends his own disciples to ask Jesus whether or not he is “the one to come.”

When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, 

Matthew’s gospel doesn’t explain until 14:3-12 the reason of John’s imprisonment: publicly rebuking Herod Antipas for his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias.

he sent his disciples to him with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

For many of us, this question comes as a surprise.  Didn’t John recognize Jesus?

John’s inquiry about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is interpreted in several ways.  Some scholars suggest that John knew full well that Jesus was the Messiah, and he dispatched his disciples to Jesus so that they could personally recognize and follow Jesus.

Others suggest that John was generally unaware of Jesus’ ministry and the wonders he had already performed. In Matthew’s gospel, John is arrested before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  He did not witness Jesus redemptive work himself, he simply heard of it while he was in prison.

Or perhaps John was perfectly aware of Jesus’ work, but he did not yet see all the eschatological signs he expected to see.  After all, release of the captives was one such sign (see Isaiah 61:1), and John was still imprisoned.

Regardless of which interpretation is correct, the fact that the question is being asked at all reveals that the kind of messiah that John and his disciples expected was not the kind of messiah that Jesus turned out to be.  At some point, John had to reconcile his expectations for the Messiah with Jesus himself. Christ did not burst onto the scene with judgment, as John seemed to think he would.  Recall our reading from last week, when John lashed out at those who come to be baptized: Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (Matthew 3:7). He went on to warn his audience that the coming messiah’s winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12). It’s clear that John expected a harsh and judgmental messiah.

But instead of threatening judgment, Jesus preached good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.  His first contact with tax collectors was not to exhort them to honesty, but to call them to be disciples and share meals with them — to the point that he was called “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” in Luke 7:34.

It is easy to imagine that John was disappointed.  Are we disappointed in Christ, or do we fully accept the gospel message?  Are content with God’s ways, or do we insist upon our own?

Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

John’s question posed a problem for Jesus. If he answered “yes,” the Pharisees would have interpreted that as blasphemy and the messianic expectations of the people would have spun out of control. However, if he answered “no,” he would be lying.

Therefore, Jesus answers indirectly. He does not make a formal claim of messiahship, but links some of his own wondrous deeds with prophetic allusions to signs of eschatological fulfillment (see Isaiah 26:19, 29:18, 35:6, 61:1).  Note how these deeds of fulfillment coincide with Isaiah’s prophecy in our first reading.

And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus knew that he was not what was expected, and that they would be disappointed or even angry.  Many of the Jewish faithful were expecting a military or political leader who would free them from Roman rule, or a priest who would bring them together as a cultic community. Others took Isaiah’s prophecy very literally, expecting instant perfection at the moment of the Messiah’s coming.

Jesus knew that he would be a stumbling block to those whose preconceived notions of his identity blinded them to the truth of who he really was.

To this he says: Blessed is the one who is not scandalized (scándalizō) in me.

As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John,

The scene shifts; now Jesus is speaking to the crowds about John as his forerunner. After clarifying his own identity, he goes on to establish the full identity of John as a prophet.

Note that Jesus waits until John’s disciples are out of earshot before doing so: he is careful to not give the impression of currying favor with John. He wants to ensure the people know his statements are genuine.

“What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?

Jesus poses a set of rhetorical questions.  Mention of the desert is important, as you would expect to find a fierce and resolute man there, not one that resembles a reed shaken by the wind.

Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.

In the desert, you would expect to find someone dressed simply, not one attired in fine clothing associated with a palace.

Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

If you go seeking someone in the desert, you would expect to find a prophet, and that’s exactly what they found.

There had been no prophecy in Israel since the last of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi. The coming of a new prophet was eagerly awaited and therefore a very exciting proposition.

This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.’

John is not only a prophet, but the long-awaited precursor of the Messiah.  See Malachi 3:1; Exodus 23:20.

Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist;

This is the highest praise given by Jesus to any man, making John the Baptist the last and greatest of the prophets, even greater than Moses.

yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

As important as John’s stature is, note that John merely prepared the way — he did not actually follow Jesus along that way.  From an eschatological point of view, John stood on the threshold of the new age; he did not cross over into it.

By contrast, anyone who accepted Jesus’ invitation into the reign of heaven belonged to the new age.  Regardless of how insignificant they may be, as citizens of the reign of heaven, they have the light of the gospel and the communication of the power of faith and will be able to accomplish greater works than John.

Connections and Themes

  • Halfway through our Advent pilgrimage to eschatological fulfillment, we pause for a moment to celebrate Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday for rejoicing.  The readings provide us with a glimpse of our destination: a wonderful sight is set before us, a sight that is truly a reason for rejoicing.  However, the readings are not all scenes of peace and tranquility — on one hand, there is a scene of burgeoning life and restoration, on the other, there is a picture of John the Baptist languishing in prison.  The reality toward which we are traveling is not devoid of hardships, and the journey itself can seem endless.  Hence, patience is also an Advent theme.
    • First Reading:  Isaiah paints a picture of regeneration, a glimpse of our ultimate destination.
    • Second Reading: James exhorts us to have patience, but highlights that our patience will be rewarded with “precious fruit.”
    • Gospel: John is the model of patient waiting, even while suffering.  His pilgrimage ends in being praised by Jesus as the greatest of all prophets.
  • Restoration and new life. In the reading from Isaiah, the desert that once seemed to be dead is now bursting with life; eyes that lacked sight, ears incapable of capturing and holding sound, limbs without strength, and tongues devoid of speech are all given new life. There will be no death in that age of fulfillment, no limitations, no mourning. The world will be again as it was when it first came forth from the divine womb. It will be young and vibrant, innocent and brimming with promise. This fulfillment is the goal of our pilgrimage. As we move deeper and deeper into the reality of God’s presence in our midst, we will discover the meaning of true fulfillment. We will realize that there is life in what we thought was death; there is strength in what we thought was weakness. The barrenness of the world’s pretensions will be revealed and the paucity of its standards will lie bared before us. The eschatological age will turn things upside down, but we will recognize our place in the world and see it in a new way.
  • The kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist plays a double role in the drama that unfolds in the gospel reading. He is a kind of standard for judging the privilege of entering, here and now, the kingdom of heaven. There is no doubt that in death he has joined the communion of saints and does indeed enjoy the fullness of God’s kingdom, but during his lifetime he never saw its dawning. He was the herald of the coming of Jesus, the one who prepared for him, but John himself died before the death and resurrection of Jesus opened the floodgates of the eschatological tide. By comparison, the privilege of being even the least in the kingdom of God is far greater than being the prophetic herald of its coming. It is our good fortune to have been invited to join the pilgrimage, to have been baptized into the kingdom of God.
  • John also serves as a model of patience and suffering. His circumstances teach us that moving toward eschatological fulfillment is not without cost. The road we are asked to travel may not always be clear. Like John, we might be filled with doubts. Like John, we might fail to recognize the signs of the eschatological age. Even in such straits, John is a model for us. He shows us how to remain loyal even during these times of hardship. He is not only the herald of the eschatological age, he is an example of faithful endurance. This same theme is expressed in the letter of James. That writer exhorts the Christians of his time to follow the example of the prophets, who suffered hardship for their proclamation of the word of God. According to Jesus himself, of all the prophets, there is none greater than John.
  • Patience. Just as Matthew presents us with the example of John the Baptist, so James describes the patience required of the farmer. The farmer not only toils arduously but must wait to see the fruits of that toil. The farmer exemplifies the advancing of the woman who is heavy with child, who endures the pains of childbirth, but whose pain is overcome by joy when the child is brought forth into the world. It is to this farmer that we look to see how we should proceed on the pilgrimage with determination and steadfastness. The eschatological day of fulfillment will dawn in its time; all we can do is discharge our responsibilities regardless of how demanding they might be and wait for that day patiently, convinced that it will come in God’s due time.