3rd Sunday of Advent

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Year A 

Year of Matthew

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READINGS

 

A reading from the prophet Isaiah                         35:1-6.10 

Responsorial Psalm               Psalm 146:6-10. R/. cf. Is. 35:4 

A reading from the letter of St James                           5:7-10 

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

  11:2-11

 

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Advent is a time for looking back.  Advent is a time for looking forward. So Advent is a time for living the present.  Of course we live in the present; we in the here and now, in a particular place and in the circumstances that make up our everyday. 

    But the Jew or the Christian lives according to the holy words of God we read in our Bible.  The Scriptures, written by and for people who lived two or three thousand years ago determine how we live and, indeed, why we live.  The purpose of our asking each of these ancient documents who wrote, where written, why written, and when written is a necessary recognition that our holy books come from a distant past.  What God did in ancient times determines our understanding of what we are called to do in our time and in our place.

    But that is only half the story.  For we are called to a future. We are assured of a destiny.  We are not wanderers. We are pilgrims. To be sure, we are on the way, not aimlessly meandering through life and time.  We travel, not alone, but accompanied by God. We may not hear much about guardian angels these days but, as I learned at school, they stand for guidance on the way.  We have a roadmap, clearly marked and a beckoning destination always in sight.

    So our present is infused with a past and lit up by a future.  Listen to a voice from the past today. It is the voice of Isaiah, a voice from the past that is proclaiming our future:

 

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

The desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus,

It shall blossom abundantly

And rejoice with joy and singing.

 

    There is another voice from our past, a voice imprisoned.  It is the voice of John the Baptist, uncertain and frightened:

 

Are you the one who is to come,

or shall we look for another?

 

Another voice gives assurance:  

 

Go and tell John what you see.

 

What we see in our reading is this:

 

… the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

 

The present of Jesus, what he is doing, is reported to John in order that John may know that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  In a cell in the fortress of Herod Antipas at Machaerus John learns that his preaching has not been in vain. John has prepared the way for the one to come and the one who arrived has brought healing to those in affliction, the poor are raised to the centre of things, and are the recipients of gospel goodness. There is, too, a blessing for all who have ears to hear:

 

And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

 

The blessing is not time-conditioned.  It is a blessing on all, whenever and wherever they are, who hear the word and keep it.

    When we listen to our readings each Sunday we are thrown into the past in order to learn the future.  And in learning from the past a word about the future, we become a people of hope. We learn, too, how to live the present in order that hope is transformed into faith, and the present is infused with love. In short, people on the way are not bereft.  The past and the future teach us how to live today. Advent is time to prepare for an outpouring of joy.

 

A reading from the prophet Isaiah                          35:1-6.10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;

 the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;

 it shall blossom abundantly

and rejoice with joy and singing.

 The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,

the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

 They shall see the glory of the Lord,

the majesty of our God.

 Strengthen the weak hands,

and make firm the feeble knees.

 Say to those who have an anxious heart,

“Be strong; fear not!

 Behold, your God

will come with vengeance,

with the recompense of God.

He will come and save you.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

 then shall the lame man leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the mute sing for joy

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return

and come to Zion with singing;

 everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;

they shall obtain gladness and joy,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The word of the Lord.

 

Today’s first reading is from the prophecies of Isaiah.  Much of what precedes it in this long book is lamentation for the disasters that have befallen God’s people.  The whole world is reduced to the pains of wars and the tribulations that wars and colonial conquests bring:

                          

                               You conceive chaff;

you give birth to stubble;

your breath is a fire that will consume you

and the peoples will be as if burned to lime,

like thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire.

Isaiah 34:10-12.

 

But the prophecies in the Book of Isaiah, like all biblical prophecies, must speak of salvation.  Times of pain cannot be left without hope. The prophet who speaks for God cannot be deaf to God’s healing words. If healing words are not spoken by God, our faith, everyone’s faith, is in vain.  The pain of the people will remain forever and the cry of the suffering will not be heard whenever and wherever human voices are raised:


My God, my God,

why have you forsaken me?

                                           Psalm 22:1

 

    What Isaiah hears is not only the pain of the people.  He hears the voice of God revealing a future of healing and peace:

 

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;

 the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;

 it shall blossom abundantly

and rejoice with joy and singing.

 

There will be a future for “God … will come and save you”.

On hearing the word of God, the prophet discerns a glorious future, a future filled with healing, and singing, and joy:

 

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

 then shall the lame man leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

 

    What we see in today’s Gospel is Isaiah’s future becoming Jesus’ present:

 

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.

 

    Isaiah spoke of the blind, the deaf, the lame—all now healed in the presence of the One who comes in the name of the Lord God.  

   Advent is spread before us today.  We listen to what happened when Isaiah hoped and when Jesus went about installing the kingdom of heaven.  We are reminded that renewal is always God’s purpose. In learning the past, we are given hope for the coming of a future where every tear will be wiped away:

 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Revelation 21:1-5

 

But what bearing does our delving into the past and our rejoicing in a glorious future have on our present?

 

Responsorial Psalm               Psalm 146:6-10. R/. cf. Is. 35:4 

R/. Come, Lord, save us!

 

It is the Lord who keeps faith forever,

Who executes justice for the oppressed,

 who gives food to the hungry.

 The Lord sets the prisoners free.    R/.

 

It is the Lord who opens the eyes of the blind.

 The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

 the Lord loves the righteous.

 The Lord watches over the sojourners;

 he upholds the widow and the fatherless.   R/.

 

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

 the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the sojourners;

 he upholds the widow and the fatherless,

but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

 The Lord will reign forever,

your God, O Zion, to all generations

 

R/. Come, Lord, save us!

 

I suppose that half a prayer is better than no prayer.  But what we have as our Responsorial Psalm today is half a prayer.   The first five lines of the psalm are omitted and that robs us of the wholeness of the prayer that celebrates the wonder of the God who keeps faith, forever true to his word.

    Here are the opening verses of Psalm 146 as translated by an American scholar Robert Alter, whose translation was described by Seamus Heaney as “a godsend”.

 

          Hallelujah.

Praise the Lord, O my being!

Let me praise the Lord while I live,

                            let me hymn to my God while I breathe.

Do not trust in princes,

in a human who offers no rescue.

His breath departs, he returns to the dust.

On that day his plans are naught.

     Happy whose help is Jacob’s God,

his hope—for the Lord is his God,

maker of heaven and earth,

the sea, and all of that is in them,

Who keeps faith forever,

        does justice to the oppressed …

 

It is at this point that the Lectionary text begins, leaving out the comparison  between the princes “who offer no rescue” and the Lord God who gives bread to the hungry, does justice for the oppressed, and looses the fetters of those bound in the chains of captivity.  The Lord is the one who gives sight to the blind, makes the bent straight, and who guards immigrants (this is what “strangers” means in these contexts), and cares for abandoned widows and orphans. 

    It is worth calling to mind some biblical expressions of these divine concerns and to note that men and women are required to do as God does.  Everyone who hears these sacred words is ordained into responsibility:

 

You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.                                             Deuteronomy 24:17

 

    When Moses and the priests assemble the people in the desert as they make their way to the land of promise, they call on the mottled bunch of ex-slaves to learn from their experience and do as you would be done by:

 

Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.

                                    And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’. 

                                                                      Deuteronomy 27:19

    

Psalm 94 calls on God to intervene and to crush those who oppress:

 

They kill the widow and the sojourner,

and murder the fatherless;

 and they say, “The Lord does not see;

the God of Jacob does not perceive.

Psalm 94:6-7

 

In the time of exile Jeremiah cautions that there will be no return home if there is no determination to live as God demands:

 

For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.

Jeremiah 7:5-7

   

 Our Responsorial Psalm today prays that the Lord God will reign forever.  So past, present, and future are bound together with an assurance of God’s good stewardship.  Of course, with that divine stewardship comes the divine command: do unto others as you would be done by.

    Or, as we see what Jesus did in his time—

 

the blind receive their sight,

the lame walk,

lepers are cleansed,

the deaf hear,

the dead are raised up,

the poor hear good news—

 

so those who now walk the way of Jesus must do the same.  It is a holy and wholesome thought not only to pray for the dead but to raise to the life of God, to the life of Jesus, all who are dead to the joy of the gospel of God. 



A reading from the letter of St James                           5:7-10 

Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 

The word of the Lord.

 

In the opinion of many scholars the First Letter to the Thessalonians is the very earliest of the 27 writings that eventually became the New Testament.  There are some who regard the Letter of James to hold that distinction. If we are certain as to the identity of James we would be the more able to reach some certainty as to date.  These matters are not solely the concern of scholars for St Paul identifies James, the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem as “the brother of the Lord”:

 

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. 

                            Galatians 1:18-19

 

We know from Mark 1:19 that Jesus called two brothers to follow him at the very commencement of his ministry:

 

And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets.

 

But Mark’s Gospel (6:1-3) also mentions another James:

 

He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us.

 

Is either of these men the author of the Letter of James?  The matter is of great importance for, while one of them is a fisherman and son of Zebedee, the other is named as the brother of Jesus and the son of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Readers will appreciate that there are issues of considerable seriousness in seeking to clarify the identity of the four persons in the New Testament who bear the name James.

 

    James, the fisherman, called as he cleaned his father’s nets, was killed at the orders of Herod Agrippa I in 44 A.D.  Details will be found in Acts 12:1-5. He is the Church’s second martyr after St. Stephen. But he is not the author of the Letter of James.

    Nor is James, the son of Alphaeus, a man of Galilee and one of the Twelve listed in Matthew 10:3.  He is often called “James the Younger” or “James the Little”, assuming him to be younger or shorter than James the fisherman.  His mother Mary (Mariam, a very popular name for girls at the time) was present at the crucifixion of Jesus and a witness of the resurrection.  She had another son named Joseph:

 

There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

          

        Matthew 27:56 (see also Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:10).  

 

Next to nothing is known of this man.  For that matter, next to nothing is known about most of the Twelve.  Again, though his mother was obviously prominent in the earliest Christian circles, her son James was not.  He is not the author of the Letter of James.

    Luke’s Gospel, alone of all the Gospels, mentions another James.  We know that the listings of the Twelve who became apostles are not identical, as one would expect if the Twelve were of significant importance in the early years of Christian development. The strangest divergence comes in Luke and especially when a James is mentioned in relation to a Judas, not Judas Iscariot, the betrayer.  Luke’s listing of the Twelve ends thus:

 

… and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.                                                   Luke 6:16

 

So somebody called James has a son (or a brother, according to some ancient authorities) named Judas.  We know nothing about these people. This James was certainly not the author of the Letter of James.

 

    Which James is James?

 

The author of the Letter of James begins as follows:

 

James, slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ to the twelve tribes in the diaspora, greetings.

 

Some scholars argue that this James in none other than James, the brother of the lord.  But this James was put to death in 61 A.D. at the instigation of Ananus, the High priest (according to the Jewish historian Josephus, a near contemporary of the event).  

    There is a strong suspicion that the author is an unknown Christian Jew who adopted the name of the great James who led the first communities of Christians in Jerusalem.   The argument in favour of this opinion is that the theology of the letter is not particularly strong on upholding Jewish religious law (the Torah).  Everyone agrees that the Greek in which the letter was written is equal to the best in all the writings of the New Testament.  It is assumed that James, the brother of the Lord, a native speaker of Aramaic, could not have excelled so proficiently in a foreign language.

    However there is a growing recognition that Greek was the language of diplomacy, commerce and trade throughout the Middle East (all stations east of Athens as far as the Tigris and Euphrates).  There is no reason why such an astute leader of the difficult first years of Christian presence in Jerusalem could not be more than competent in the lingua franca of the world where he lived. 

    James was a man who could hold the peace between Peter and Paul.  He was a man who dealt in practicalities and compromises. The Letter of James is a masterpiece of practical Christian living in very difficult circumstances.    The author was writing to brothers and sisters who were meeting with “trials of various kinds”, and whose faith was been tested at every turn (see James 1:2).   He encourages steadfastness in difficult circumstances:

 

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12 

 

Read all this little letter as an Advent treat.  It really is a text for our times:

 

If any of you lack wisdom, … ask God who gives generously to all without reproach.                                        (James 1:5)

 

Know this, my brothers and sisters, let every person be quick to hear, and slow to speak, slow to anger … for anger does not produce the righteousness that God requires. 

 James 1:19

 

Be doers of the word, not hearers …

James 1:22

 

If anyone thinks that he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

                                                                            James 1:26

 

And how is this for bringing religion down to basics?

 

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

James 1:27

 

These quotations are all from James’ first chapter.  There is more, much more, of such wisdom on every page.

 

     Our reading today is by way of a summary of what has gone before. Again, note the practical wisdom.  A farmer waits … being patient as the early rain comes, and waits some more for the late rains. So wait patiently for the coming of the Lord.  Do not grumble. Remain steadfast. Think how long the prophets had to wait.

    I am not sure who wrote this letter.  But it sounds like the sensible, practical James of Jerusalem.  It may have been written by a disciple of his. But if that is the case, then he certainly was true to his mentor.

    Obviously, once Paul named James as an apostle and “the brother of the Lord” (Galatians1:19) and St Mark wrote of the family of Mary in Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6), matters were raised that needed clarification.  Matthew copied Mark’s account (Matthew 13:53-58) and the matter gained a wide circulation. Indeed Matthew added to the theological speculation by repeating a more dismissive account of the approach of “his mother and brothers” asking to speak to Jesus, than the verse he copied from Mark:

 

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.    

               

    Matthew 12:46-50 (omitted from our Lectionary)



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

               11:2-11

 

When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.

  Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

 

     As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,

 

‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,

who will prepare your way before you.’

 

 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

The Gospel of the Lord.

 

The whole of chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel is devoted to the call of the twelve future apostles and with an extensive account of their apprenticeship mission with appropriate instruction.  While they are away Jesus continued to teach and preach “in their cities”. At this time some disciples of John the Baptist came with the anxious inquiry that today concerns us.

    What is startling is that Jesus does not answer the questions asked by the anxious prisoner in Herod Antipas’ prison.  What John asks is this:

 

Are you the one who is to come 

                                                 or shall we look for another?

 

Jesus doesn’t tell him who he is.  He tells John’s messengers to report what they hear and what they see.  But the reports to John are to be in the words of Isaiah. Notice the subtlety here. Isaiah had written what we read in our first reading.  He had written what God promised to do when the exiles returned from their unhappy sojourn in Assyria:

 

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

 then shall the lame man leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

 

So if Jesus is doing what God determined to do, who then is Jesus?  Jesus did not point his finger to himself but to God. But by describing the world he was creating in the very words of Isaiah, he was claiming to be the fulfilment of what God promised would be done.  The actions of Jesus are the actions of God in the world. Jesus is the one who makes God’s future present, in his time, in our time, in all time. 

    The second part of today’s Gospel proclamation has Jesus confirming the vocation of John the Baptist as the one who prepared the way of the Lord.   Great as he is, his glory cannot stand comparison with those who are in the kingdom of heaven. Who are these blessed people, every one of whom is greater that John?

    The answer is that everyone who lives in the world being created by Jesus lives in a blessed time.  Living with Jesus as he walks our world to its promised destiny. To live in the time God’s will is being done as it is in heaven, is to live with Immanuel and participate in the creation of God’s peace.

    The communities that grew out of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are called to facilitate the immersion of God’s will, of God’s kingdom, in the heart of humanity.  At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the charter of the kingdom of heaven on earth, Jesus envisions a future:

 

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.

Matthew 7:24-27 

 

These past words of Jesus are our present calling and as we live that calling, we do so with a vision of a future long ago painted in the words of that servant of God, Isaiah the son of Amoz.  What we read in his words, what Jesus made of his words, what we are called to proclaim, is this:

 

It shall come to pass in the latter days

that the mountain of the house of the Lord

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

and shall be lifted up above the hills;

and all the nations shall flow to it,

 and many peoples shall come, and say:

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

to the house of the God of Jacob,

that he may teach us his ways

and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go the law,

and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

 He shall judge between the nations,

and shall decide disputes for many peoples;

 and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

 nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore.

 O house of Jacob,

come, let us walk

in the light of the Lord’

                                                                           Isaiah 2:2-5

 

What was laid upon the shoulders of Jesus of Nazareth is laid upon our shoulders, so that with him we may walk the way of the Lord God.  Advent will set us on the right way and point us to one who will walk with us to our Calvarys  and beyond.

 

Dr Joseph O’Hanlon.

       

     



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