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December 11 2016 (A) Third Sunday of Advent (A)

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Jesus Christ the cause of our joy

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Isaiah 35:1-6, 10). God himself is coming to save you. The book of Isaiah, from which the present reading is taken, is a large volume of sixty-six chapters. Today it is usual to see three divisions in the work, composed or combined at different times: chapters 1-39; chapters 40-55 and 56-66. It is in the first division, 1-39, that any information on the on the prophet Isaiah, active between 740-700 BC, is to be found, The second division, 40-55 (Second Isaiah), described as “the Book of Consolation”, by a poet and prophet, addresses discourses of encouragement to the Jewish exiles in Babylon about 540 BC telling them that they will be permitted to return to the homeland, and foretelling a glorious return and future. It is now generally accepted that this large book was put together over a long period of time and that some portions of division one are later than the age of the prophet Isaiah himself. This is true in a special way for chapter 35, from which our reading is taken. The background and the imagery reflect the era or Second Isaiah, and the promise of the return of the exile to Jerusalem and Judah. But some of its prophecies, directed in the first instance to the exiles in Babylon, would be fully fulfilled later.

   To return to the text itself: First of all there is an invitation to various barren places (wilderness, dry-lands, wasteland) to exult, because they are to bloom, with the beauty of well-known glorious places (Lebanon, Carmel, Sharon). Then there is a call to bring courage to the weary (the exiles in the first instance). Their God is coming to save them, coming to defeat his and their enemies. In this context the terms “vindication” and “retribution” are used, but in parallelism with “to save”, and here mean the same thing as “to save”, not in their traditional negative sense.

   After this the miracles promised for thr new age are listed, on the blind, the deaf, the lame and the dumb. In the first instance, for the first readers or listeners, these are probably figures for the exiled people in Babylon, those ransomed by God who were to return rejoicing to Zion (Jerusalem), with an end to sorrow and lament.

   The prophecy on the miracles promised will be fulfilled by Jesus, who refers indirectly to this text in his answer to the envoys of the Baptist, as narrated in today’s Gospel reading.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 145[146]). Come, Lord, and save us.

Second Reading (James 5:7-10). Do not lose heart, because the Lord’s coming will be soon. There is a great variety of material in the Letter of James, between teaching and counsels. He uses strong language against the rich oppressors who refuse to pay their wages to those who mow their fields. Those to whom he writes appear to have laboured under diverse pressures. Towards the end of the letter, in today’s reading, he gives advice that could hold good for most ages and conditions of the Christian experience, with emphasis on being patient and persevering. He speaks of the Lord’s coming, but it is not altogether clear whether by “Lord” God or the coming of Christ as intended. The background to the letter is somewhat like that of sections of the Gospel. He gives the example of the farmer. As an example of patience he instances the prophets, but does not say how exactly these were examples. In Jewish tradition all the prophets were believed to have suffered persecution and this may be what is intended. But it is also possible that he has something else in mind: the prophets looked forward to the fulfilment of their prophecies but had to await patiently for God to do this. The prophets needed patience, faith and perseverance. The Epistle to the Hebrews lays stress on this truth when encouraging perseverance for its readers.

The Gospel (Matthew 11:2-11). Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else. This reading constitutes an excellent contrast with last Sunday’s Gospel text. In that Gospel passage John the precursor of the One who was to come would have the winnowing-fan in his hand to separate good from evil and burn the wicked (chaff) in the fire. Jesus, proclaimed by him as the One who was to come, was doing the direct opposite, a friend of the marginalized and of those reckoned as sinners by the godly. For criticizing Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, John the Baptist was thrown into prison, but continued to have disciples. On hearing of what Jesus was doing, John had doubts about Jesus, and this explains sending the messengers with John’s query. In his reply Jesus lists his actions one by one, all the fulfilment of prophecies, especially those listed in Isaiah chapter 35 (today’s first reading), and in other places in the book of Isaiah (26:19, the dead; 29:18, the deaf; 61:1, the good news to he poor). Jesus praises John highly, a prophet whose coming was predicted in the book of Malachi (3:1), but yet makes a clear distinction between the Old Testament and the New Age, being introduced by himself. John stood at the threshold of the New Age, but belonged to the Old. Between John, Jesus and his disciples there is a radical break, the new being superior.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Jesus Christ the cause of our joy

Traditionally this third Sunday of Advent was known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the opening word Gaudete, “Rejoice” in the Latin Entrance Antiphon: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near”. In one sense the basis for rejoicing is the nearness of the Lord. Some biblical scholars believe that the “nearness” in question refers to the second coming of Christ – a point by no means clear. In any event, Christian joy is not founded on belief and expectation of the second coming of Christ. Together with peace, it is a gift from Christ. This joy is a gift that no one can take from believers in Christ (John 16:22). Jesus’ desire is that believers may have his joy made complete in themselves (John 17:13). He told his disciples to rejoice and be glad when people revile them and persecute them and slander them for his sake, and Paul and his early Christians so rejoiced.                                                                                          

All this may appear to be too theoretical, with little or no bearing on any dialogue with the world in which we live. This is not quite the case. If joy is a gift from Christ it is active in the entire life of believers, not just in religious affairs. The Church currently is kept aware of the scandals and weaknesses within her, but believers know that with the grace of God she is being purified and these will become a thing of the past. Christian joy comes from belief in God who is ever present. When we look around us we can perceive joy – joy at sport events, at football matches where one’s favourite team is supported, but in case of defeat there is no recrimination for something that is but a game. This is evidence of joy and peace. There is joy in conversation, over a drink, with “craic” and music, and in many of the ordinary events of life. And in times of trouble there can also be joy, in the belief that God is near and will see us through. These are a few of the thoughts worth reflecting on on this “Rejoicing” Sunday – recalling St Paul’s words: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say Rejoice. The Lord is near”,