A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
B. Reflection & Dialogue: Advent: A call for Transformation in the Church
The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
First Reading (Isaiah 11:1-10). He judges the wretched with integrity. The eighth-century BC prophet Isaiah had free access to the royal house of David. He advised king Ahaz on a critical occasion and criticized him severely for not rejecting God’s word to him. This was the occasion of the famous Emmanuel prophecy on the birth of a birth of a saviour to the royal house. He also predicted severe punishment on Jerusalem, the royal house and the people for their neglect of the covenant with God. But he also stressed God’s fidelity to the covenant with David and the book has some well-known prophecies of glorious days to come with the birth of an ideal heir to the Davidic throne. One, on the birth of this heir, will be read on the Christmas night mass. The present reading links this birth with a larger vision on the advent of a reign of justice and integrity, and the restoration of the conditions of the Garden of Eden, all due to a knowledge of the Lord and a life in accordance with this.
Jesse was the father of David, the stock from which the Davidic tree, or Davidic dynasty, came. The prophet envisages this tree as returning to its original root (stock), or perhaps as destroyed, only the stump (or stock) being left. From this root a new branch (scion), a son of Jesse, will emerge. He will be graced for his mission by a six-fold gift of the Spirit. The Spirit of God was an important element in God’s action through chosen individuals. It gave empowerment for a task. The son David, the Messiah, will be richly endowed to introduce the new age. To the six spiritual gifts of this Hebrew text, the Greek and Latin translations add a seventh: piety, and this seven have been regarded by the Christian Church as the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit given to Christians to continue on earth the mission of continuing the redemptive work of Christ. Thus richly endowed for his new age mission, this Son of David will act as expected, with emphasis on his concern for the wretched and the poor. His reign will be characterised by his integrity and faithfulness. The new age will effect the animal world and all creation, with a return of creation to the condition originally intended by God, with peace between animals and humans – all coming from human awareness of God’s will and the desire to fulfil it. The reading ends with the first lines of a poem on the return of Israel’s exile. The restored and purified “root of Jesse”, the future Davidic king would act as a unifying signal beyond Judah and Jerusalem to bring Israel’s exiles home. Christians will see in it a signal to unite all God’s children, Jew and Gentile, worldwide, and this in keeping with the Greek rendering of the ending “He will be sought out by the nations” as “And in him the nations will put their hope”, cited by Paul in the continuation of today’s second reading.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 71). In his days justice will flourish and peace till the moon fails.
Second Reading (Romans 15:4-9). Christ is the saviour of all. Paul ends his letter to the Romans with a pastoral exhortation on the new life n Christ to which Christians are called. He begins this exhortation as follows (Romans 12:1-2): “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be transformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect”. Patience and forbearance are central requirements for living this, a point Paul returns to in today’s reading, immediately before which Paul recalls the example of Christ: “Christ did not please himself, but as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (Psalm 69:9). What exactly Paul has in mind may become clearer from the following. Christ became a circumcised servant of the Jews to fulfil the promises to the Patriarchs. But his understanding of these promises and his way of life went beyond certain Jewish expectations and their insults for this fell on Jesus. The same would soon hold for the Christian concerts from paganism, who for Christ’s sake would be persecuted. Today’s reading follows on this introduction by Paul. He recalls the faith and hope of Jewish generations, to be taken as written for his readers to give them hope, that is perseverance in their faith and to accept one another as all called by God into the Church, Jew and gentile, all after the example of Christ. This accepting of one another, living in harmony despite diversity, gives great glory to God, being proof of the success of Christ’s mission on earth and of his saving death.
The Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12). Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. John the Baptist, as precursor of the coming, the advent, of Christ has a prominent place in the Advent liturgy. The Gospel readings for this second Sunday, and the third Sunday, are about him, and it is informative to contrast the two. Today’s reading begins: “in due course”, literally “in those days”, which is merely a phrase of transition from the Infancy Narratives of the two preceding chapters. The gospel narratives of public life, death and resurrection of Jesus, really began with the preaching of John the Baptist. It was with this that the early preaching of the Church began. Mark’s Gospel has no Infancy Narrative. A new era of prophecy began with the Baptist, and his clothes and food reflected this. He came in the spirit of Elijah, the first great prophet of Israel, and dresses like him. Elijah is described in the Bible (2 Kings 1:8) as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist”. The Baptist is presented as the fulfilment of the great prophecy of a new age in the book of Isaiah. He is accepted as prophet and gathers great crowds from Jerusalem and Judea. He must have made a great impact, as his preaching and it success is also recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus. His central message was a call for repentance, since “the kingdom of heaven (Matthew’s phrase for “the kingdom of God”) is close at hand”. Among those coming to him were some of the best known Jewish religious groups, the Pharisees with their own strict oral tradition and the Sadducees (mainly connected with the priestly class) who rejected this. John addresses plain demanding language to both: genuine repentance to be shown in good works. Their Jewishness and descent from Abraham will not save them. John’s baptism was for repentance, in preparation for the Coming One (the Messiah, the Christ), who he believes will punish evildoing severely. In this John would be mistaken, as Jesus would do the very opposite, being friendly with sinners. In prison John has his doubts as to whether Jesus is the one whose coming he foretold and prepared the way for – as we shall see in next Sunday’s reading.Jesus replies that his own gentle ways were also predicted in prophecy. This was part of the mystery of Jesus of which John had to learn. A message of this for us today, in keeping with the emphasis of our present Holy Father, is to live and present an image of the Church that will reflect the tenderness of Christ.
B. Reflection & Dialogue: Advent: A call for Transformation in the Church
Today’s readings are in keeping with Pope Francis’s call for transformation in the Church. The first and gospel reading go far beyond their own day in their vision of a better future. This is clear for the first reading. John the Baptist called for readiness, for repentance, because the kingdom of heaven was near in the One who was to come after him. Jesus’ teaching and way of life went far beyond the Baptist’s expectations. Paul’s message is that Christianity is itself a transformation, and any true transformation must be in line with what Paul has in mind: not being conformed to this world (in Paul’s day or in ours), but being transformed by the renewing of our minds, through grace, union with Christ, with the Church and its sacraments, and by personal prayer. It is through this union with Christ and the Church that we can discern what is the will of God – fully aware of course of the age in which we live and the need to pray and work for a renewed Church that can bring Christian joy and a desire to show forth Christ’s redeeming love to the world.
B. Reflection & Dialogue: Advent Joy, Advent Vision
For “Reflection and Dialogue” see Martin McNamara, MSC, Sunday Readings with Matthew: Interpretation and Reflections (Veritas, 2016).