NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ISAIAH 61:1-2a, 10-11
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB link to all three readings
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.
I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.
We are following the liturgical calendar in our reading of the Hebrew Scripture; the selection of first readings throughout the Lectionary is steered by the liturgical season and the Gospel of the Sunday. This Sunday (December 17) the Gospel comes from the first chapter of St. John the Evangelist, and describes an interrogation of John the Baptist by priests of the temple in Jerusalem. The Baptist had evidently drawn large crowds by his preaching, and his listeners had concluded that he was more than he appeared to be. The priests asked about his identity, and the Baptist states that he is not “the Christ,” the one who is to come. When pressed, the Baptist states "I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
'make straight the way of the Lord."
The Baptist is quoting Chapter 40 of Deutero-Isaiah, a text written during the Babylonian Captivity, marked by themes of longing and comfort for an exiled people. The Isaiah text in its entirety—all three segments--have a close relationship with the Gospels. In Luke 4, for example, Jesus reads the words of Trito-Isaiah, ““The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” and proceeds to tell his synagogue listeners that this text is now being fulfilled in their midst.
Sunday’s first reading serves two purposes in its location here. In the first instance, Isaiah 61 is applied to the description of the one for whom the Baptist is preparing, and the kinds of ministry he will exercise. Our house expert, Father Boadt, explains that Trito-Isaiah’s optimism here would have sounded strangely out of place in the post-Exile circumstances, which to put it mildly, were grim. I have written earlier of conditions in Jerusalem after 539 B.C. when exiles began to make their way home from Babylon and encountered hostility from the surviving remnant, as well as a gravely weakened political situation.
The entire Old Testament is time conditioned. Its authors look to past, present, and future from their own lived experience. In the case of the prophets, these preachers assume the identity of God and/or his messenger, saying what they believe God wants them to say at a juncture in history. Many of us have grown up with the idea that prophets are seers considering the future, and it is true that they are not unfamiliar with future oriented apocalyptic thinking and style, as we see in Sunday’s reading. But as often as not, prophets look backward: their call is a return to the pristine past enjoyed by Israel when God delivered them from the Egyptians, gave them the Law of Life, and led them into the Promised Land.
The first paragraph calls to mind the Egyptian Captivity, how God heard their cries and brought both tender mercy and a fierce retribution upon the captors of Egypt, climaxed by the drama at the Red Sea. Trito-Isaiah, writing in an age of new circumstances—including loss of independence and kings of the Davidic line—is reminding his generation that if God has saved Israel before in similar circumstances, there is no reason to think he won’t hear the cries of his people again—if they can put aside discord among themselves and focus upon an internal holiness, a new purity of heart.
The second paragraph of Sunday’s reading takes a different emphasis, one that would have resonated well with Christians in the years after the Ascension of the Lord, and particularly in the present day. In the second paragraph the family of Israel is clothed in a robe of salvation and a mantle of justice; Israel is dressed “like a bride bedecked with her jewels.” She will become an object of great beauty, desired in every sense of the word, and fruitful as any vineyard. Her fecundity will spring forth “before all the nations.” Boadt explains that the later prophets turned to the theme of Israel as a universal sacrament, so to speak, of life and fulfillment. “Salvation” in Israel was becoming gradually redefined, from fulfillment in a powerful sense under future kings like David, to a more spiritual change of the communal heart. This change in emphasis makes practical sense given Israel’s diminished political status as a vassal state after the Babylonian Captivity among its stronger neighbors. This was the condition in Jesus’ time, when the Herods served at the pleasure of their Roman overlords.
Trito-Isaiah strongly emphasized Israel’s collective witness of holiness. It is the entire nation that is bedecked with jewels and the object of desires of the human hearts of all nations. Israel is described as a universal source of salvation for all nations. Again, this would be interpreted later by the Christian Church as the intent of Christ—that the body of Christ’s followers would always give a collective example of unity. Trito-Isaiah’s vision would assist the Church in defining herself as bedecked with the Holy Spirit in a common life of fraternal love.
There are many of us, myself included, who worry at the fissures and cracks in present-day Catholicism, let alone among the other Christian Churches. I don’t have an easy answer to this except to say that the intent of Christ—and our Jewish forebears in faith—was that we be one. There are those who argue that adherence to a rite or a legal interpretation carries as much weight as unity around the table of the Lord. One needs to look at the Scriptures with a fine-toothed comb to uncover a defense for disunion. The divisions in post-Captivity Israel inspired Trito-Isaiah to his eloquent portrayal of God’s extravagant blessings upon a future day of glory. Advent is the season of identity—we are that day, the people united in Christ as a light for the world. Woe to those who dismember the Body of Christ.