Commentary on the Readings
3rd Sunday of Advent – Year B – December 17, 2017
The joy of waiting for the dawn
The Hebrew language is quite poor in synonyms. To express joy twenty seven words are used in the Bible. In the Holy Scriptures there are the desperate cries of those who do not find an answer to the mystery of pain, but more often they echo the "shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the feasting throng" (Ps 42:5) and hymns of thanksgiving to God: "My heart will rejoice on seeing your salvation. I will sing to the Lord for he has been good to me" (Ps 13:6).
In the Gospels we encounter people with sad faces: the rich young man who has not the courage to detach his heart from his possesions (Mt 19:22), the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:17). At times Jesus’ face also darkens (Mk 3:5; Mt 26:38). But an atmosphere of joy pervades in all the pages of the Gospel, from the promise of a son to Zechariah "he will bring joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth" (Lk 1:14), to the "great joy" announced to the shepherds (Lk 2:10-11), to the joy of Zacchaeus who receives the Lord in his house (Lk 19:6), until the disciples’ sheer joy on the day of Passover (Jn 20:20).
But there is a character that we can scarcely imagine with a beaming face: John, the son of Zechariah, the preacher in charge of preparing the coming of the Lord. He lived in the desert and when he went out, it seems he did it only to frighten, to threaten fire from heaven, to root out trees, tremendous punishments (Mt 3:7-12). But he too was once happy. When he recognized the voice of the bridegroom who was to come he exlaimed: "The friend of the bridegroom rejoices to hear the bridegroom's voice. My joy is now full" (Jn 3:29).
The coming of Jesus is always accompanied by joy and no face—not even that of John the Baptist—can be sad.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
"Let us rejoice and be glad for the marriage of the Lamb has come."
In last Sunday’s first reading we heard the insistent invitation of the anonymous prophet. In Babylon, he invited the exiles to prepare the way for the Lord who would come to deliver them, to bring them back to the land of their fathers. He promised wonders: rivers of fresh water flowed into the wilderness, cries of joy and songs of celebration would accompany the return to Jerusalem.
A few years passed and the political events proved him right. In 538 B.C. Cyrus made his triumphant entrance into Babylon. He issued the edict of freedom for all the exiles (Ezra 6:3-5).
Trusting in the words of the prophet, a group of Jews, the following year, embarked on the way back. It was a difficult journey, full of hardships and dangers. It ended with the more unpleasant surprises: the cold reception, indeed, hostile, by the Israelite remnant in the country.
Sustained by enthusiasm and hope, the returnees still managed to overcome the first difficulties, but then delusions rapidly followed one after the other, more and more bitter. The city was defenseless and without walls, crumbling houses, the land of their fathers all occupied. There were even a few years of drought that reduced many families to destitution. Newcomers eventually burdened with debts and became slaves of landowners and unscrupulous profiteers. Were the promises heard in Babylon misleading?
In this difficult situation, another prophet arises. Today’s reading carries the words with which he presents himself to the discouraged and heartbroken Israelites. I was sent—he says—to give courage and hope to those who are disappointed, to bind up broken hearts, to bring good tidings to those who suffer, to proclaim liberty to the captives and to announce the year of the Lord’s favor (vv. 1-2).
He has no weapons, no money, no political power to impose. He has only the word; he is the bearer of a sure promise because it is formulated by God. The jubilee year has come, one in which "each one will recover his property" (Lev 25:10). No one must resign himself to live in misery and slavery. It is the time for the poor to lift his head and regain his own dignity.
Were these promises realized? There was, yes, some slight improvement, but injustice, corruption, harassment went on as before.
It was difficult to continue to believe and hope in the face of such bitter disappointment. There was every reason to abandon the faith, however the people did not lose heart. They were convinced that they would not be betrayed by their Lord and, that, even if not immediately, the word of God would certainly be fulfilled.
Jesus was in the synagogue of Nazareth at the beginning of his public life. After reading the consoling promises of this prophet, Jesus solemnly proclaimed: "Today these prophetic words come true, even as you listen" (Lk 4:21 ). It was the announcement that the awaited day for centuries has come. It was the day that signalled the end of every slavery, misery and pain.
Yet, the prophecy was not fully fulfilled even with Christ as it was not realized five hundred years before, during the return from exile. The one who does not enter the perspective of the prophets is led to believe that they exchange the illusions with reality and certainly take those which are only wishful thinking or hopes. It is not so. The prophets were gifted with a new look. They saw the world differently and already perceived in the break of dawn the splendor of the whole day. Like the prophets, Jesus also was looking ahead and contemplating the new world, already fully realized, where "there shall be no more mourning, nor crying" (Rev 21:4).
Only one who has eyes like his is not discouraged in the face of a sometime absurd or cruel reality. He believes in the fulfillment of God’s promises and makes his contribution so that the seed of the kingdom of heaven, placed on earth by Christ, develops and reaches fruition soon.
In the second part of the reading (vv. 10-11), the prophet sings a song of praise: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit exults in God my savior." These are the words that are also on the lips of Mary (Lk 1:46).
How could these Israelites who are in the midst of afflictions, affected by calamities, moving in the midst of many difficulties, raise to God a hymn of praise? It is because they have the eyes of the believer. They are so sure of the their God’s loyalty. They are so confident that he will free the poor, console the afflicted, heal the broken-hearted, that they see his promises already fulfilled.
The Prophet takes the word on behalf of Jerusalem and puts in the mouth of the city, still in ruins, the bride’s song of joy. Having removed the widow’s somber clothing, she is covered by the Lord with a dress from fine fabrics. The "garment of salvation" covers the wounds of violence; "the robe of righteousness" has taken the place of the worn-out rags of abuse and harassment; "jewels" replaced the chains of slavery.
Nothing has yet happened, but the look of the prophet goes far, beyond the narrow horizons of human pettiness. He invites to grow, even in the most dramatic situation, optimism and hope, based on the certainty that God will accomplish his plan for the world.
The image of the seed that sprouts and grows until it becomes a large tree closes the vision: all the peoples behold Jerusalem, which has become a garden where justice sprouts and spreads (v. 11).
We are at the end of the Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul, before the greetings, introduces some concluding exhortations regarding community life.
He recommends: "Rejoice always" (v. 16). Joy is one of the characteristic signs of the presence of God’s Spirit in the human heart (Gal 5:22).
It is easy to confuse it with pleasure, the pleasure of alcohol, drugs, immoral life. Paul tells the Thessalonians the source of true joy. It comes from prayer: "Pray without ceasing and give thanks" (v. 17-18).
Joy is the result of the opening of the heart to the impulses of the Spirit who enriches the community with his gifts and is given by God to one who leads a blameless life (vv. 19-22).
A community that takes into account these exhortations of the Apostle becomes "holy" (vv. 23-24), that is completely different from other groups, association or sects.
"Light is pleasant and it is good for the eyes to see the sun" (Ecl 11:7). Positive resonances and pleasant emotions are associated with light. "To come to the light" is synonymous with being born (Job 3:16), "to see the light" means "to be alive" (Job 3:20).
This symbolism, present throughout the Bible, is resumed in the New Testament, especially by John, the evangelist. From the prologue he presents the coming of Christ into the world as the appearance of light: "Whatever has come to be found life in him; life for which human beings, was also light, light that shines in the darkness, light that darkness could not overcome" (Jn 1:4-5).
Even the figure of John the Baptist is introduced with the same image. In the first part of today's passage (vv. 6-8), he is identified as the man sent by God to testify to the light. He has such an important mission that, in just two verses, it is mentioned three times.
At the end of the first century A.D., when John wrote his gospel, there were still many people who called themselves disciples of John the Baptist. They were heavily influenced by him as the supreme model of life, even in opposition to Jesus. That's why the evangelist pressed to clarify the position of the precursor viv-a-vis with Christ. The Baptist was not the light of the world. He was just the first to recognize "the true light that enlightens everyone" (Jn 1:9). He was not deceived by the flattery of those who, surprised by his teachings and admired his honesty, were convinced that he was the messiah. He remained at his post, kept himself faithful to his mission.
During Advent his testimony is proposed to us. As he did with his contemporaries, today he points out to all people the light of the world, Christ. Those who follow him will not walk in darkness, but will have life (Jn 8:12). His call is appropriate because the sparkles of the proposed deceptive life are countless and seductive. They glow but soon fade away and turn out to be slivers of death. Only the light of Christ indicates the true values, those on which one will never regret of having bet one’s life.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 19-23) a committee, made up of priests and Levites is introduced. They were sent by the religious authorities to get the Baptist’s explanation about his identity and behavior. In Jerusalem they began to be concerned about his growing prestige, the emotions he aroused, and the hopes awakened by his preaching. Three times the spiritual leaders of the people anxiously asked him the same question: "Who are you?" Many rumors are spreading about him: there are those who consider him the Messiah, other take him as "the prophet" who, according to the promise of Moses, God would raise up to guide Israel (Dt 18:1-5). There are some who claim that he is Elijah restored to life.
The Baptist is loyal and does not accept identifications, honors, titles that did not belong to him. He declares to be neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the great prophet. He defines himself simply as a voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.
It is hard to imagine something more fleeting and ephemeral of the item that, as soon as he communicated the message, it disappears without leaving a trace. The Baptist does not want the focus on himself, but on Christ: "It is necessary that he increase but that I decrease"—he will say later (Jn 3:30). His mission carried out, he is happy to step aside. He makes sure that no misunderstandings arise; he shuns any form of "cult of personality."
To recognize Christ-light, the testimony of someone who, like the Baptist, was able to discover his identity is necessary. Faith is not born of reasoning or pseudo-revelations, but from listening: "How can they believe in him—asks Paul—without having first heard of him? And how will they hear about him if no one preaches about him?" (Rom 10:14-17).
The Baptist has also made a journey of faith. He acknowledges that he gradually came to discover Christ, "I myself did not know him. Yes I have seen. And I declare that this is the Chosen One of God" (Jn 1:29-34).
This spiritual journey is repeated in the life of every believer. It starts from the discovery of the true identity of Christ. Then one arrives to the conviction that deserves full faith. Finally one becomes a witness of one's faith, as Paul said, "We also believe and so we speak" (2 Cor 4:13).
In the third section (vv. 26-28) there is first of all the call of John the Baptist: "Among you stands one whom you do not know." This disclaimer seems inexplicable.
For centuries Israel had been waiting for the Messiah but when she saw him arrive she did not recognize him. A veil prevented the eyes of these people to grasp the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth. A dense fog, consisting of religious beliefs inculcated by the spiritual guides, blurred the minds and weighed the hearts down. Israel was persuaded of constituting a holy community, living separated and despised the other peoples. She considered the election a privilege, not a vocation for service. She waited for a Messiah who would draw himself at her side, not to bring salvation to the Gentiles, but to destroy them.
The Baptist was able to open the eyes of some of his contemporaries. In this time of Advent, he addresses to each of us an invitation to recognize Jesus as the only light and to avoid "the way of the wicked, is total darkness" (Pro 4:19).
The last statement of the precursor: "Although he comes after me, I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal" (v. 27) is commonly understood as a statement of humility. Instead, it is an image, a bit mysterious to us, but clear to the interlocutors of the Baptist who knew the law and the traditions. To remove the sandal was an act covered by marriage legislation of Israel. It meant appropriating the right to marry a woman who belonged to another (Dt 25:5-10; Rt 4:7).
By declaring not being able to untie the straps of the sandals, the Baptist states that he has no right to steal the bride of Christ. He is the Messiah; he is the God-with-us who comes to celebrate the wedding with humanity. Then the precursor will clearly express, without resorting to metaphors: "I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. Only the bridegroom has the bride, but the friend of the bridegroom stands by and listens and rejoice to hear the bridegroom’s voice. My joy is now full" (Jn 3:28 -29).
Advent is the time when the bride (humanity, the church) is preparing to welcome the groom and the Baptist is the friend of the bridegroom, in charge of promoting this encounter of love .
For many Jews, Jesus was an insignificant character. He has passed without their realizing that he had come to bring them joy, to get the party started. The danger of noticing late his presence looms today.