The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Reflection & Dialogue: Living in Patience and Perseverance with the Living God
The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
First Reading (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11). Prepare the way of the Lord. This reading is chosen to go with today’s Gospel reading. Both speak of a new age about to begin. In the first reading a heavenly voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. These words are recalled and cited in the introduction to the proclamation of the new age by John the Baptist.
We may now consider this first reading in its original setting in the Book of Isaiah. This reading is the beginning of the second major division of the book of Isaiah, known as Deutero-(or Second) Isaiah. The reading is better understood when put in its original historical setting. Soon after 585 BC news of the destruction of Jerusalem and the cities of Judah reached the exiles in Babylon, among whom the prophet Ezekiel was active. After the destruction, Ezekiel’s message of disaster turned to one of hope for the future. The exiles are represented as coming to him to hear a message from the Lord, whose words they ignore in practice. They regard the prophet as a singer of love songs, or a ballad singer. His promises or prophecies of a better or glorious future for God’s people in their homeland would have appeared as empty of content as a ballad. Babylon was still supreme, under the mighty Nebuchadnezzar who had destroyed Jerusalem. Matters were changing by 560 when Nebuchadnezzar’s dynasty was no more. In 556 Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, came to the throne, and soon deserted Babylon. By 559 Cyrus king of Persia was advancing and would clearly soon set his eyes on Babylon. Then the new unnamed prophet, known as Second Isaiah, was called to his mission. In his heavenly vision he hears a voice calling on him to proclaim consolation to Jerusalem. God’s anger has now turned to love and hope. Her exile is declared at an end. A further heavenly voice proclaims that (figuratively) there will be a levelled highway for God’s triumphal return to Jerusalem. Zion, that is Jerusalem, is then addressed as a joyful messenger to bring these glad tidings to the (devastated) cities of Judah. (It is better understand as “joyful messenger Zion, Jerusalem” than “joyful messenger to Zion, to Jerusalem”.) Israel’s God is coming over the desert to Jerusalem in power, tenderly leading his scattered flock home.
The text is a great divine vision for the future, too great to be realized in that immediate instance, and hence through history inspiring later generations. King Cyrus, who conquered Babylon in 539 BC, did permit the Jews to return home and rebuild the Temple (not Jerusalem or it walls), Not too many returned, but the Temple was rebuilt by 515, and the tiny population of Jerusalem and Judah did continue (with brief periods of independence 164-63 BC) as subject nation to Persia, Greece and Rome. Fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy would have been looked forward to.
The Greek translation (Septuagint) punctuates Isaiah 40:3, now rendered as: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare a way..’”, as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way..’”, cited in this Greek form in the New Testament (referring to John the Baptist; Gospel reading). The Aramaic translation (Targum) renders the end of v. 9 (“Say to the cities of Judah:) ‘Here is your God’”, as “The kingdom of your God is revealed”, a translation possibly current in Jesus’ days, and very near the New Testament message.
Responsorial Psalm (Ps 84). Let us see, O Lord, your mercy and give us your saving help. This beautiful psalm continues the message and expectation of the first reading – expectation of salvation through involvement of heaven and earth: “Faithfulness shall spring from the earth and justice look down from heaven”.
Second Reading (2 Peter 3:8-14). We are waiting for the new heavens and new earth. This reading has as its central theme a problem that had arisen in the early Church from the apparent non-fulfilment of words of Jesus on his own return. This letter under the name of Peter was most probably not written by St Peter himself, but some time after his death (about AD 64). It is in the form of a last will and testament in his name, concerning problems to arise when he had departed. It is “pseudonymous”, under an assumed name. Such Testaments under the assumed names of major figures in their tradition (Adam, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Solomon, Job, Three Patriarchs [Isaac, Jacob, Joseph], Twelve Patriarchs) were features of Jewish literature, and also of some early New Testament and Christian texts. 2 Peter is probably a rather later work, say AD 70-90 or later, and addresses problems that had arisen in some Christian community at that date. The author of this second Letter of Peter handles a pastoral problem of a crisis of faith arising from the perceived non-fulfilment of a prophecy apparently believed to have been made by Christ. The prophecy would have been believed to predict the return (coming) of Christ (and possibly the end of history) before the death of the generation to which Jesus first addressed his words (see Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27), this generation having passed away when 2 Peter was being composed: “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). Fundamentally the author’s answer is to have believers learn to live in faith with the Lord of eternity, and with delays fulfilment in keeping with his overall plan of salvation.
The Gospel (Mark 1:1-8). Make his paths straight. This is Mark’s presentation of the preaching of John the Baptist. John lived an ascetical life and preached a Gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, preaching also that a greater one would come after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Today’s reading is the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, and probably represents the manner which early Christian preaching of the Gospel took, beginning not with the birth of Christ, or Infancy Narratives, but with the preaching of John the Baptist. All four Gospels begin the account of Jesus’ public life with the preaching of John the Baptist. John’s preaching and his baptising activity must have made a deep impression on the Jews of his time. Both his preaching and execution by Herod Antipas of Galilee (as in the Gospels) are described in some detail by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (in his work Jewish Antiquities, book 18) about A.D. 100. In the gospels John’s activity is introduced by the words of Isaiah, to prepare the way for the Lord. It is a fulfilment of the prophecy as God sees fit. The Lord whose way is to be prepared for is now Jesus of Nazareth, who will preach that the kingdom of God is near.
Reflection. The readings give ample occasion for reflection. In Isaiah we have a vision given to a particular people at a particular point in time, but in content quite independent of any occasion, a vision of a God with the love of a shepherd, leading his people gently on. The vision would get a new application with John the Baptist, forerunner of the One who was to come to introduce the kingdom of God. While two points in time are indicated in these readings (about 559 B.C. and A.D. 30) God himself, and Christ, are beyond time. They are Alpha and Omega, to them belong all ages. Realization, actualization, of the prophetic vision is linked with human response and the vicissitudes of history. Christ is the new vision of God, and the ideal vision of the Church his Bride is clearly presented in the New Testament, in the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians in a special way. As Bride of Christ the church is intended to be holy and immaculate. In actual fact she is on occasion far from this, with weaknesses and scandals. The readings help us to see difficulties and crises in perspective and to have these actually strengthen our faith, faith being the assurance (substance) of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (as Hebrews 11:1 expresses it).
- The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Living in Patience and Perseverance with the Living God
In the second reading of today’s liturgy (Year B, 2 Peter 3:8-14) we see the author of the second Letter of Peter handle a pastoral problem of a crisis of faith arising from the perceived non-fulfilment of a prophecy apparently believed to have been made by Christ. The prophecy would have been believed to predict the return (coming) of Christ (and possibly the end of history) before the death of the generation to which he first addressed his words (see Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27), this generation having passed away when 2 Peter was being composed: “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). According to Luke (Luke 19:11), on Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem there were some who believed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately, which led to a parable by Jesus (Luke 19:12-27). Another relevant parable is that of the weeds among the wheat (Mat 13:24-30). Jesus professes ignorance of the exact date of the end time (Matthew 24:34; Acts 1:7; it is the Father’s secret.
The difficulty with living with belief in a living God, delayed promises and the problem of evil, is something that has been part of Jewish and Christian life down through the centuries. Strong faith and strong hope are required. A definition of the biblical references to faith and hope can help, followed by examples of how this worked with some major biblical figures (for example the prophets Habakkuk and Jeremiah).
- Definition of Christian faith and hope
The opening words of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians will help, which speaks of a central characteristic of hope, that is steadfastness, patient endurance, perseverance (in Greek hypomone), due to the divine gifts of faith and hope, giving full conviction through the Holy Spirit. Paul remembers “before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ”. His message of the gospel came not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (1 Thessalonians 1:4-50). The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds believers that through hope they are already linked to heaven, to the victory of Jesus who lives as intercessor for us (Heb 6:19-20): “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”.
- Prophets wrestle with God
Israel’s true prophets had a keen perception of God’s holiness and justice and of the harsh realities of human existence for Israel, both by reason of foreign invasions and of their own people’s unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. Their message is best understood when viewed, in the first instance, against the background of their own day.
The prophet Habakkuk is generally regarded as exercising his ministry, at least its early part, about 509 BC when the Neo-Babylonian forces had overcome the older Assyrian empire and (under Nebuchadnezzar) were to become the dominant power in Palestine. Habakkuk sees injustice prevailing, and enters into dialogue with the God of Israel about it, asking why does God permit it. He receives a divine answer to his complaint (Habakkuk 2:2-4): “Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith”, or “their faithfulness, their perseverance”.In this interplay with God and the working out of his plan of salvation, the proud who rely on their own ingenuity, and who lack the patience required, get lost while the righteous are saved by their patient perseverance. Habakkuk will continue to believe in God’s justice and faithfulness despite all difficulties. The end of his book contains sentiments worthy of his great faith in God: “17Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines, though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 1yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
Many further texts of the prophets wrestling with God could be instanced, particularly from the prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied about the same time as Habakkuk. In his work he has left us texts, known as “Confessions”, in which he speaks of his complaints with, and against, God and the Lord’s reply to him. In the account of his vocation to be a prophet he is told to be prepared for trouble of various kinds, in his mission to make prophecies of coming disaster and to warn the people of punishments to come. We have an example in God’s initial words to him (Jeremiah 1:17-19).
Jeremiah was faithful to his mission, but his prophesies of imminent disaster did not come through (immediately), which had the people mock him. Like Habakkuk before him, he set out his complaint before God on the unexplained existence of evil. God replies without giving an explanation of the problem, telling Jeremiah to be prepared for further trouble (Jeremiah 12:1-6): “If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?” Jeremiah’s complaints to the Lord merit reading, for instance Jeremiah 17:14-17. God does not weep on his prophet’s shoulder, but tells him repent (think rightly of God) and be prepared for worse (Jeremiah 15: 19-21)!! Similarly in Jeremiah 20:7-9, where he even accused God of seducing him, but feels impelled nevertheless to continue his demanding prophetic mission: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot”.
- Life with Christ, in trials, patience, joy
Christ tells his followers to be prepared for trials, misunderstandings and even persecutions. But “blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs are the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). The Holy Spirit is with them and brings them joy. Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light, even in trials. Jesus was aware that his followers would have doubt and were in danger of being unfaithful. They were to be supported by fellow believers. Scandal, stumbling blocks, to those weak in faith or doubting (in the Gospel called “the little ones”; not children; there was then no infant baptism, not infants following Jesus) he considered serious (see Matthew 8:6,10,14; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2). Paul had similar concern for those in danger of falling, or violating their consciences; he calls them “the weak” (Romans 14:–2; 15:1; 1 Corinthians 8:9,12; 2 Corinthians 11:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:14).
“Life in Christ” for Christians was union through faith (and grace) with the crucified and risen saviour. Paul could say (Galatians 2:19-20): “Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I Iive in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”. This is not just a mystical experience proper to Paul only. Life in Christ is union with him, with the sentiments and power of what the passion and resurrection stood for. It means ability to empathize with those who suffer, and to understand better the power of the resurrection in everyday Christian life and suffering. Paul puts it nicely in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation. We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many”.
By reason of the union with God through divine grace, Christian faith and hope are certain, not just human conviction ands aspiration. This is clearly seen in what has become the classical definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assurance (Greek hypostasis, Latin substantia) of things hoped for, the conviction (Greek elenchos; Latin: argumentum) of things unseen”. Whatever of the original import of the two Greek (and Latin) words, the text is to be understood as conveying more than human sentiments, e.g. human conviction.