3rd Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 35:1–6A, 10
Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
Every Mass has an Entrance Antiphon, like the refrain to the responsorial psalm, which we would say or sing it at the beginning of the Mass, which sets the theme for the Mass. For Sundays, the Entrance Antiphon is replaced by singing the Entrance chant or hymn, which often reflects the same theme. The Sunday half-way through Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, because the Entrance Antiphon begins “Gaudete in Domino semper” (which means, “Rejoice in the Lord always!”). It is one of only two days when the liturgical color of the Mass is rose, with rose vestments; also, the rose candle of the Advent wreath.
The other rose day is Laetare Sunday, which falls half-way through Lent. Laetare is from the beginning of the entrance antiphon of that day, “Lætare, Jerusalem” (which means, “Rejoice, Jerusalem”). Both of these rose-colored days of rejoicing fall in the middle violet-colored seasons of preparation and penitence… not necessarily as a break from the penitence, but to remind ourselves that our penitence itself ought to be joyful: we’re suffering our penitence to more fully experience the mercy and glory of God.
I could never remember which one was in Advent and which one was in Lent. But I finally figured out which antiphon is chanted in which season, because “Laetare” and “Lent” both begin with “L” … and in Advent we chant no “L”. 😊
I noticed that both words mean rejoice, so I looked up the difference. The Laetare joy of Lent is an outward joy, which fits the outward direction of Lent, toward external expressions of penitence (prayer, fasting, almsgiving), which prepare us for the joy bursting forth at the Resurrection of the Lord, and the message to go out to all the world and share the good news. The rejoicing of the Advent Gaudete Sunday is a more internal joy, which fits the inward progression of Advent from the universal day of judgment at the end of time, toward focusing into the intimate, silent night of Christ’s birth, and the message that we need to prepare the path for Christ to be born in our hearts, especially with so many holiday distractions.
“The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song… they will see the glory of the LORD.” As the prophet Isaiah paints this image of green, flowery vegetative life, you might imagine that it was even more beautiful to a people living in a dry desert. In the eschatological (the end-time consummation of the world) sense, Isaiah is alluding to a new exodus to the new Promised Land, a restoration to Eden, with its lush growth and abundance of life. But in Isaiah’s direct sense, he’s not talking about vegetative growth. The “desert” and “parched land” weren’t the wilderness around Israel; it was the corrupted hearts of the people of Israel, that had turned away from God, the source of life and goodness. But to those who would be faithful, God himself would come to refresh his people with streams of living water, making their hearts fruitful and flowing with life.
“Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God… he comes to save you.” We see through Isaiah a promise from God of healing, of restoration, of reassurance: hands that are feeble will be strengthened to do good works, knees that are weak will stand with confidence and assurance, and hearts that are frightened will be filled with the Holy Spirit, which casts out fear with the blessing of divine love.
God would come to save his people! “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.” That’s the key to the reading: God himself is coming to save and heal and restore his people.
Look at our responsorial psalm. First, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help.” Which is to say, nothing of this earth will save us; nothing will do all of what God has promised us He will do. To put our faith in things of this world is disordered and weak, and ultimately will fail. The whole psalm is about the coming of, not just God in a general way, but when you see the words LORD in all capital letters, that’s a textual substitution for the most holy personal name of the most holy God of Israel, the God who has revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, the God who is going to come in person to save his people. So if you look at that Psalm it begins by saying: Praise the LORD, O my soul! Not an abstract divine entity, but the personal God who cares for us, His people. It is the LORD, it says, who secures justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the captives free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down… The LORD upholds the widow and the fatherless. He defends and lifts up those who are vulnerable.
Last week, in our gospel reading, we had John active in his ministry, and near the beginning of Jesus’. Now we have Jesus active in his ministry, and near the end of John’s. And John “sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” This seems rather odd, if we remember that John baptized Jesus, and immediately acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. Perhaps John is no longer sure that Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps it was easier for John to believe before he was suffering in prison. Jesus hasn’t gone to Jerusalem to reign over Israel as king. He hasn’t set the captives (including John!) free, and he hasn’t baptized the repentant with the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t seem to be the Messiah that John was expecting.
But the better interpretation is that John not only knows that Jesus is the Messiah, but also knows that he himself is about to die in prison. The 16th century Jesuit priest and commentator Cornelius à Lapide says:
John then, a little before his martyrdom, sent these disciples to Christ that they might learn from Himself that He was the very Messiah, or Christ, that when John was dead they might go to Him. John sends his disciples, and asks Jesus whether He be the Coming One, i.e., the Messiah, not as doubting about Him, but because, being near death, he wished his hesitating disciples to be instructed concerning Him, that they might be led to Christ. He in his own name asks Jesus if He be the Christ, because his disciples would not, of themselves, have dared to propose such a question. John, when he had fulfilled his office and ministry, resign it to Christ. And, as the dayspring dies away into the rising sun, so did John pale before Christ. He was ambitious not of his own glory, but of God’s and Christ’s glory. Wherefore he said, “It behoveth Him to increase, but me to decrease.”
You’ll notice that the question isn’t, “Are you the Messiah?” but, “Are you the one who is to come?” That is an allusion to Old Testament prophecies of the coming one, the coming of God, prophesied by Isaiah, such as in our first reading. Also, from that heavenly vision of the prophet Daniel: “As I watched, Thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days took his throne. His clothing was white as snow, the hair on his head like pure wool; His throne was flames of fire… I saw coming with the clouds of heaven One like a son of man. When he reached the Ancient of Days and was presented before him, He received dominion, splendor, and kingship; all nations, peoples and tongues will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, his kingship, one that shall not be destroyed.”
And in response to the question from John’s disciples, Jesus doesn’t say “I am the Messiah.” He asks the disciples, in a sense, “Do you have the eyes to see, and the heart to understand?” Then go tell John what you see. And he gives a list of criteria that should tell the disciples who he really is. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor have good news preached to them.
We’ll come back to this in a moment, but Jesus then asks the crowds, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” In other words, John is not a reed, that blows this way and that with the wind. He had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, and continues in his conviction. “Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.” John was clearly not about compromises with this world, He was eating locusts and honey, wearing a hair shirt and leather belt. Much like the great prophet Elijah. John is not soft and delicate. “Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.” This is a reference to the book of the prophet Malachi. Malachi doesn’t say anything about the Messiah, but rather about Elijah returning to herald the coming of the God of Israel himself.
And to stress the point even more, Jesus adds that the lepers are going to be cleansed and that the dead will be raised. You might remember when we talked about the healing of the leper Naaman the Syrian. His king sent a letter about Naaman to the King of Israel, and I pointed out his response, which was, “Am I God that I could heal a man with leprosy?” So the assumption was that there are some miracles that only God himself could do. The same thing is true when he says “that the dead are raised up.” There he is alluding to Isaiah 26, one of the two places in the Old Testament that refers to the resurrection of the dead. And when is that? When God comes, the dead are going to be raised.
And then last, but not least, Jesus says “and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them”. That is a prophecy of the Messiah that alludes to Isaiah 61, which is the scroll that Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth: “the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed (messiah) me to preach good news to the captives and to the poor.” So Jesus is combining these two prophecies of the coming of God and the coming Messiah, to tell John, and everyone, that he is more than the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of David. He is the God of Israel, the Good Shepherd himself, who has come to heal and save his people. This is whose birth, whose advent (“coming toward”), we are preparing ourselves to receive in his royal birth, the Newborn King, about whom the angel choirs sing.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will…
At the end of our gospel reading, Jesus, having affirmed who he is, then affirms who John is. “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Now especially as Catholics, we can struggle with this saying. Jesus is born of woman. Is John greater than he? The Blessed Mother is born of woman. Is John greater than she? I think the way to understand this is to point out that at the time Jesus was speaking, John would die in prison before Jesus manifested himself in his death and resurrection. He was the last of the Old Covenant prophets announcing the coming of the Messiah, and John was the greatest of them, because he announced not just the Messiah, but the divine Messiah. He was the precursor of the coming of God himself. Yet John was of the Old Covenant. The “least in the kingdom of God”, we who are of the New Covenant, are more than just born of women… we are born of water and the Holy Spirit…of the Holy Spirit and fire. We are reborn in grace.
Perhaps this is also a reminder to us, reading this gospel, that the evangelists (gospel writers) wrote decades after Christ, even after Paul’s letters. So the evangelists are writing to their own Christian communities, enduring persecution, suffering, and martyrdom, and recording for their encouragement the origin story of their faith: the life, words, and actions of Christ. And so St. Matthew is writing to a community who has already lost members to martyrdom, that as great and holy as everyone acknowledges John the Baptist to have been, they, too, will be great and holy (even more so than John!) if they persevere in the faith in the face of their suffering and martyrdom.
Jesus also tells the disciples, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Now why would he add that? Because there are going to be a lot of people who take offense. He’s revealing that he is both the Messiah and God himself. But he’s going to challenge long-held interpretations about the Law and the Temple; he’s going to lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty; he’s going to be simple, poor, suffering, and crucified. The phrase “take no offense” in the Greek is skandalon: the root of our word, “scandal.” It means a “stumbling block.” Someone who causes scandal introduces a stumbling block for others. The cross is going to be, and has been, a scandal, a stumbling block, for many.
There’s a certain importance to the reality that Jesus, or at least Jesus in the gospels, doesn’t explicitly answer “Yes” to the questions of “Are you the Messiah? Are you the one who is to come?” Instead, the reader is presented all the evidence, given the truth, and then the reader is asked, “Do you have the eyes to see, and the heart to understand?” The reader is required to be the one to make the declaration for themselves. The gospel isn’t about Matthew confessing his faith: it’s about him leading his reader to confessing that same true faith. We know Jesus healed the blind, and the deaf, and the lame, and healed lepers and raised the dead. We know these were given by the prophets as signs of the One who is to come, the Messiah, God himself. So can we do it? Will we do it? Will we make the profession that YES—I believe and confess JESUS CHRIST IS GOD, He IS the One who is to come. Matthew, and Jesus, don’t spoon feed it to us. They make us say it for ourselves.
Next Sunday evening (December 22) at 7:00 p.m. we have our parish Advent Penance Service. If you haven’t been to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a few months, or a few years, or a lot of years, we’re going to have a bunch of priests here, you can go anonymously, you can go face to face, but go. Going to the sacrament of Reconciliation is the best way to prepare yourself, your family, your children, for Christmas. It is the removal of the obstacles in your heart to experience Christ’s coming. It’s preparing the way for him in the wilderness of a heart disordered by sin, fear, guilt, and shame, that our God who comes to us to connect our humanity to his divinity may heal you, and renew you, and restore you to communion with himself.