December 14th 2014 (B) Third Sunday of Advent

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

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Joy of Christian believing, and loathing on its rejection

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

This third Sunday in Advent has been traditionally known in the Latin liturgy as Gaudete Sunday, from the opening word of the entrance antiphon Gaudete¸”Rejoice”, from the letter to the Philippians 4:4-7, a text given in full in the earlier Latin liturgy and still used in part in the present entrance antiphon, and still as reading two in year 3 of the present lectionary. The text of Philippians 4:4-7 is as follows: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul expresses the same sentiments in his very first letter, written to the Thessalonians, given as today’s second reading: “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing”.

First Reading (Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11). I exult for joy in the Lord.There are two parts in this reading, separated from one another in their original setting in the Book of Isaiah. In the first part the prophetic writer as God’s messenger is speaking, announcing that he has a message from God and that he has been anointed by God for this mission. This mission is to proclaim the good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken, to proclaim liberty to captives and to those in prison, and to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.

It is clear from the verses that follow this first part in the Bible that the messenger is speaking to Zion, to Jerusalem, and to the devastated cities of Judah. In the second part of today’s reading the prophetic messenger is speaking as representing Zion, or the people itself. Zion or the people reply as if the promises had already been fulfilled, as if wrapped in the garments of salvation and exulting for joy, like a bridegroom or a bride. A new spring, a new age, is seen as about to begin. Just as the earth brings forth vegetation, so is the Lord about to make this new age of integrity and praise to spring up. The entire reply to God’s intervention is one of joy, exultation and praise.

The two parts of the reading are entirely in keeping with the theme of this Sunday’s liturgy which is one of joy. We may now pass to a consideration of the full chapter 61 of Isaiah from which these readings are taken, situating it in its original context in the Bible and in its probable historical setting. With regards to the contents of chapter 61, they are as follows: an anointed person (probably a prophet) announces his mission to bring good news to marginalized groups, a day (year) of favour, a day of vengeance (vindication) for Zion (Jerusalem, God’s people) after the disasters suffered (by destruction at home, the exile (verses 1-3). There is a promise that they (the returned exiles?) will rebuild the ruins, aided by foreign (pagan) nations (4-5); they will be a priestly people (6), their fortunes reversed, in joy, with an everlasting covenant with God, and revered among the nations (7-9). In verses 10-11 a speaker (probably still the prophet) rejoices (partly representing Zion) in this changed fortunes, when the Lord makes saving justice and praise to flourish in the sight of all nations.

It is generally accepted that chapters 60-62 of the Book of Isaiah are by the same author. They are part of “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), a collection of poems, mainly from the post-exilic period (and Palestine), but dependent on Second Isaiah, this chapter 61 particularly so, a passage sometimes regarded as the Fifth Servant Song. The immediate post-exilic period (539-450 BC or so) was one of which we know relatively little. It was one making for confusion in religion and lack of hope: Jerusalem in ruins, two forms of Jewish population – those left behind, never in exile, with older ways of thought and religious practice and the new arrivals from Babylon with a new vision and plan for the future. In Isaiah 61 the prophet is not presenting a programme for social renewal, but rather a vision of the future in the spirit of Second Isaiah, of what God would wish his people to be, and the joy arising from belief in the fulfilment of this.

It was a vision that would continue to inspire later generations. We have a later influence of Isaiah chapter 61 in a text from Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls, written about 120 BC, a text sometimes called A Messianic Apocalyptic”, making explicit mention of God’s Messiah. It says that the heavens and the earth will listen to His (God’s) Messiah. The Lord will consider the pious and call the righteous by name. He liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind. And the Lord will accomplish glorious things; he,  that is, the Lord, will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor.

The clearest example of the fulfilment of the prophecy, of course, is by Jesus himself, in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth, as narrated in Luke’s Gospel: “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,   because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Responsorial Psalm (Luke 1:46-50, 53-54). My soul rejoices in my God.

Second Reading (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24). May you all be kept safe, soul and body, for the coming of the Lord. This beautiful reading is from Paul’s closing exhortation to his letter to the Thessalonians, a community he had founded a few months earlier. In this concluding exhortation he advises the community as to how they should accept that diversity which was part of a living and believing Christian community. Although the Church at Thessalonica to which he was writing was very young, diversity and a certain tension had already emerged within it. Gifts of the Holy Spirit were in evidence within it in prophecy and possibly in related charismatic gifts. Some of these were not highly regarded by all members, perhaps most members, of the community. Paul gives advice on this situation. But he introduces what he has to say by stressing the spirit in which a Christian community should live and act: rejoicing, being happy, in prayer and in thanksgiving to God for his gifts. It is, of course, possible that those who did not regard what Paul refers to as prophecy, that is prophecy in the Christian sense of the word, or certain gifts of the Spirit too highly, may have in mind a group within the Church which they regarded as indulging in ostentatious behaviour. Paul’s advice is that there should be no rash judgment or action. Situations and actions should be pondered on, what was regarded as good held on to and all evil avoided. The early Church at Thessalonica was expecting Christ to return in the not too distant future. In Paul’s view the best preparation for meeting Christ at his coming is by a truly Christian life. He ends his exhortation and this letter by a prayer to the God of peace to keep the community safe and blameless in preparation for this coming, and is confident that God who has called them to the faith will not fail them.

Gospel (John 1:6-8, 19-28). There stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me. Advent is the season of preparation for the coming of Christ, in particular his first coming at his birth, celebrated at Christmas. As precursor, John the Baptist had the role of introducing Jesus to Israel, and this his mission is reflected in the Advent liturgy, where in Sundays two and three of each of the three years of the liturgical cycle the Gospel reading is about the Baptist. This year the reading is taken from the Fourth Gospel. The first part of the reading is from the prologue which speaks of Jesus, the Word, as the light of the world. This leads the author to introduce a reference to John Baptist as a witness to the light, the light which is Christ. The Baptist movement, centred on its founder John, did not end with his martyrdom. It continued strong in the early Church, possibly leading some to believe that John was the Messiah or the expected light. This may explain our text’s statement that John was not the light, but only a witness to the light.

In Jesus’ days in Palestine there was a variety of expectations of messianic and messianic-like figures. There was, of course, the traditional expectation of the Messiah (in Greek the Christ). Some in the Jewish monastic community of Qumran expected the advent of two Messiah (Christs), the priestly and the Davidic, the Messiah of Aaron and of David. A text of the prophet Malachi led to a widespread of a return of the great prophet Elijah, before the great day of the Lord. There was also the expectation of the coming of a prophet, possibly due to a text in the book of Deuteronomy where God promised Moses that he would at a future date send to Israel a prophet likes Moses himself. The Fourth Gospel uses the term “Jews” in a variety of senses, sometimes just meaning the Jewish people, in a neutral sense, at other times as the enemies of Jesus. Some Jews, apparently interested in the role of the Temple, and requiring a reply, sent priests and Levites to John to ask if he was any one of these three expected persons. John’s answer was in the negative, and when asked how define himself, he cites a well-know prophecy of the Book of Isaiah. He is a voice crying in the wilderness, to prepare the way of the Lord – ushering in a new dawn as the prophet cited had. Persons sent by the Pharisees inquire why John was baptizing if he was none of these three, leading to John’s reply on his own insignificance, merely baptizing with water, and the existence among them of a greater unknown one – who would be revealed in due time as Jesus. The Bethany in which these things happened was not the town of Lazarus, but an unknown site to the east of the Jordan.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Joy of Christian believing, and loathing on its rejection

It is worth paying attention to Paul’s words as we have them in the Entrance Antiphon for today’s Mass: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice”. It is obvious that Paul lays stress on Christian rejoicing, on Christian joy. He expresses the very same sentiments in the first of his letters that has come down to us, that to the Thessalonians, from which our second reading is taken. There he says: “Rejoice always; be happy at all times”. This invites us to reflect on the importance of rejoicing, of joy, in Christian life, in human life, and for believers during this period of Advent, and indeed at all times, of the close connection between joy and the coming of Christ into our world, and on Christ’s own emphasis on the joy of believing in him and his mission. This presents an opportunity of recalling the texts of the New Testament on this theme, without giving chapter and verse of the Bible.

At the birth of Christ, recalled at Christmas, the Angel declared to the shepherds that with this birth he was bring good news of great joy for all the people. John the Baptist declared that his joy was full that the promised redeemer had come. The disciples rejoiced on the success of their first mission, and Jesus called on them to do so. On that same occasion Jesus himself rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and thanked his Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that he had hidden the mysteries of salvation from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants, that is to his own followers. The mystery hidden from all ages, from many prophets and kings, had been revealed to them, and for this Jesus declared them blessed, happy, fortunate. Christian joy is connected with the new age revealed in Christ and his Church. The theme of joy is prominent in Jesus’ prayers and teachings as presented in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus prays that his own joy may be in his disciples and that their joy may be full. He forewarns them that in this world they will have trials, but after trials their sorrow will turn into joy. Their hearts will rejoice and they will have a joy that no one can take from them. The disciples are asked by Jesus to pray (to the Father) that their joy may be full, and their prayer will be heard. The Beatitudes end by linking persecution with joy. Blessed, happy, are the followers of Christ when ill-treated and persecuted on account of the Son of Man. They should rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely their reward is great in heaven. It is clear from these texts that Christian joy is rooted in belief in Jesus Christ and in the new age that has come with him and continues in the Church which he has founded. This joy goes with love and respect from the Church.

This love for the faith, and the joy that accompanies it, has been a central part of the Christian heritage down through the centuries. It has also been very much part of the Irish tradition right from the beginning. Matters have been changing very much in the older world over recent centuries, and in Ireland over the past decades. Christianity has been abandoned by a number of the learned class, and more recently by the general public. With regard to persons born and reared in the faith in these changing circumstances three classes can be identified. A number continue to believe and practise. Another group abandon practice of the faith, and possibly also belief, but are not perturbed thereby. A third class abandon the faith and turn violently against it, against the Church, its practices and against belief in revelation and even in the existence of God. In writings of some of this group, a venom can be perceived, which varies with the form of learning and literature they represent. In some writers there is a quest for redemption but not that of Christian tradition, a form of redemption and hope in mankind’s ability to show compassion, love and find an individual spirituality.

On this Gaudete, Rejoice Sunday, it is well to recall that other venom and loathing which can be produced in some who reject the salvation, the redemption, brought by Christ and still proclaimed by the Church. Dialogue might help bridge the gap between the two visions of life here and beyond.

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