Commentary on the Readings
2nd Sunday of Advent – December 8, 2019 – Year A
Courage, lift up your head!
Israel was a tree that the Lord had germinated from a seed and then cultivated. Later the enemy came, armed with the lumberjack’s ax. The tree was smashed with merciless blows and reduced to a bare and desolate trunk (Ps 74:5-6).
It is our history. We are at the mercy of the forces of evil that enslave us. They take away the light and the breath from us. We become dried branches, unable to bear fruit.
But woe if we lose hope.
In the future days—the prophets assured— “Israel will take root, blossom, and sprout and fill the world with fruit” (Is 27:6). I shall be like the dew to Israel—the Lord says—and like the lily will he blossom. Like a cedar he will send down his roots; his young shoots will grow and spread. His splendor will be like an olive tree, his fragrance, like a cedar of Lebanon.
Nothing is impossible to him that has made even the dry stick of Aaron flourish (Ex 17:3).
According to the promises of the Lord, from the root of Jesse, a vigorous tree has sprouted—Christ—into which all are grafted. From him, the sap will maintain its lushness and will make every tree planted in the garden by God produce abundant fruit.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“We fear the axes of our enemies, but not that of God who removes the malignant plants from our garden.”
As it already happened last Sunday, Isaiah introduces us into a really idyllic reality of peace, brotherhood and universal love. With an image taken from the animal kingdom, the second part of the reading (vv. 6-9) describes a world from which enmity, hatred, hostility were eliminated; a world wherein the beasts have become tamed and domesticated: the wolf dwells with the lamb, and the leopard with the kid, the lion, and the calf graze together and are so docile to be led by a child.
The harmony is rebuilt not only on an animal level but also between God and people and among people themselves. There is no longer anyone who commits evil. The poor and the weak do not suffer injustice and oppression. All are motivated by feelings of love because the wisdom of the Lord will fill the land as the waters cover the sea (v. 9).
The oracle is even more surprising when one considers that it was delivered in a dramatic moment in Israel’s history. It was when the dynasty of David, in which were pinned so many hopes, was no longer strong and flourishing like a cedar of Lebanon. It was reduced to a severed and lifeless trunk. With this announcement, the prophet intended to arouse in his people confidence and hope. True to his promise, God would give a beginning and an era of peace, similar to that which existed in the Garden of Eden before the fall.
At this point, the question spontaneously arises. When will this prophecy come true? The answer is given by the first part of the reading (vv. 1-5).
With an image taken from the vegetable kingdom, the prophet announces the fate of David’s dynasty. It sprouted from an insignificant root, from a stock that no one thought worthy of consideration: from Jesse, a humble shepherd of Bethlehem.
Blessed by God, this tree had taken roots and developed. Its shade covered the mountains; its shoot went through the mighty cedars—the Psalmist says with an image full of freshness (Ps 80:11). Then ruin came. The trunk had been broken, burned, reduced to a smoldering ember. Was it the end of everything? Disgusted by the infidelity of this family, God had perhaps revoked the promise made by the mouth of Nathan (2 Sam 7)?
The Prophet answered: No! From the parched trunk of the family of Jesse, a new shoot will prodigiously sprout through whom all the promises of God will be fulfilled.
The qualities of this offshoot of the root of Jesse will be extraordinary.
It will be filled with the spirit of the Lord. It will fully possess the divine force that hovered over the waters at the dawn of the world (Gen 1:2), who animated heroes like Samson, who inspired the prophets beginning with Moses (Nm 11).
This spirit is invoked four times and the number four indicates universality. It is as if this mighty wind, coming from the four cardinal points, converges with all his energy on this son of Jesse.
The spirit of the Lord offers six gifts and the prophet lists them in three pairs:
Wisdom and understanding are the qualities that have characterized Solomon, the wise king as there was none before him nor after 1 Kg 3:12.
Counsel and fortitude indicate the ability to govern with prudence and military valor, the qualities of which David was filled with.
Knowledge and fear of the Lord refer to obedience and docility to God, a virtue of which the patriarchs were models.
Possessing the Spirit of the Lord fully, the expected descendant of David will be a king. He will carry out the mission entrusted to him by God. He will establish justice and take up the defense of the weak and the oppressed. With the power of his word, he will reduce to impotence the violent and will make the ungodly disappear. Justice and loyalty will follow him everywhere, like the ornaments of his vestment.
Who is this king mentioned by Isaiah? No descendant of David has ever possessed all these qualities nor has made these dreams come true. The promise was fulfilled in Jesus. He sprang up like a shoot from the family of David.
Even after the birth of Christ—we see it every day—the strong continues to oppress the weak. Human rights are ignored and trampled upon. Discord, hatred, and violence are still present. However, the shoot appeared from the family of David, is growing, and has already become a people. It is the church, responsible for making the new society, announced by Isaiah, to be present in the world.
Paul was concerned about the tensions that existed within the community of Rome, between two groups of Christians. The small group was made up of those whom the Apostle called weak. They are people tied to the religious traditions of the ancients. They led an austere life; they deprived themselves of even lawful pleasures. They observed many precepts such as circumcision and abstinence from unclean food. The other group called the strong argued that the observances imposed by the ancient law had lost their value. It was enough to believe in Christ.
The weak judged the strong and considered them easygoing, superficial. In turn, they despised the weak, treated them as mentally dull, retrograde and nostalgic.
Paul—who ranks among the strong—recommends to all charity and mutual respect. As a decisive argument, he cites the example of Christ. Jesus never had in view his own self-interest. He forgot himself and put himself totally at the service of others.
His disciples cannot be different from him. They cannot seek their own advantage. They must think only of the good of his brothers and sisters. They must also be willing to set limits to their freedom if this is required by love towards others.
At the time of Jesus, it was believed that Elijah did not die, but was taken to heaven to reappear one day. In fact, prophet Malachi foretold, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of me to clear the way…I am going to send you the prophet Elijah before the day of Yahweh comes, for it will be a great and terrible day” (Mal 3:1,23).
After Easter, the early Christians realized that “the day of the Lord” was the one in which Jesus brought salvation. It even included who Elijah was, as spoken by the prophet. It was John the Baptist, instructed by God to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. “What was there to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? But people who wear fine clothes are found in palaces. What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. For John is the one foretold in Scripture in these words: I am sending my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way” (Lk 7:25-27). “All the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you believe me, he is that Elijah whose coming was predicted” (Mt 11:13-14).
Who was John? An enigmatic person! Josephus Flavius—the famous historian of the time—presented him thus: “He was a good man who urged the Jews to live a righteous life, treating each other with reciprocal justice and subordinating themselves with devotion to God and having themselves baptized. In truth, John was of the idea that not even this bath was acceptable as forgiveness for sins. He was convinced that it would be only a purification of the body if the soul had not been previously purified through right conduct” (1 Antiquities of the Jews, 8.5.2 & 116-119).
In today’s Gospel Matthew describes him as an austere man (v. 4). His food was simple like that of the inhabitants of the desert. His dress was rough, a leather belt around his waist that distinguished Elijah (2 Kg 1:8), and a fur cloak—a uniform of the prophets (Zec 13:4).
The whole person of John the Baptist was a condemnation and denunciation of the opulent society—then as now. It was aimed at the ephemeral, the frivolous, the false values of luxury and ostentation.
His message is summarized by the evangelist in a simple phrase, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is near” (v. 2).
The hope in a better future was one of the central themes of the message of the prophets. Unlike the other people who put their golden age in the past, Israel placed the reign of David in the future. It was waiting for a world where the Lord would have exalted harmony and made peace abound; a world where interpersonal relationships would be marked by love, reconciliation with nature, with people, with God.
The apocalyptic preachers had described the history of humankind as a succession of kingdoms of beasts. “Beasts emerged from the sea; they were the great empires of Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece” (Dn 7). Those were difficult times, but there was no need to lose heart: the ancient world had come to an end and the new world was about to burst.
The present pains should not be interpreted as signs of death, but as the suffering of a difficult childbirth: a prelude to the birth of the new era.
Since these are the expectations of the people, it is easy to see how the preaching of John would arouse great enthusiasm. Everyone was running to be baptized, to be introduced first into the kingdom of God.
Baptism by water was not enough. Jordan was not a pool from which one miraculously came out cleansed of sin. To be willing to enter into the kingdom, it was necessary to convert oneself, that is, to reverse the path, change course, to completely modify the way of thinking and acting. It was not enough to correct some moral behavior. It was necessary to put into action a new exodus.
They came to him from Jerusalem … Here are the people of Israel, established in the promised land, now abandoning their own condition of presumed freedom and returning to Jordan. They considered themselves free, but in reality, they continued to be slaves: of their own religious convictions, their obstinacy, the false image of God that they made.
They confessed their sins … They became aware of being still in exile, of being deprived of freedom.
Every year on the second Sunday of Advent, the liturgy offers Christians the preaching of John the Baptist. He prepared the people of Israel for the coming of the Messiah. So, also today, he is able to teach us to welcome the Lord who is coming.
Today, as then, the most difficult step to accomplish is to understand that it is a must to get out of the land where we are settled, leave the false religious and theological security that we constructed and welcome the newness of God’s word.
Not everyone has responded with solicitude to the invitation of the Baptist. Not all were willing to work a radical change of heart. The Pharisees and Sadducees … while intrigued by the preaching of John, found it hard to get involved. They did not trust him but preferred to keep their certainties (vv. 7-10). They thought they were already right with God for the fact of being children of Abraham. This false security will be reported later by a famous rabbinic saying: “As the screw rests on a dry wood, even so, do the Israelites rely on the merits of their fathers.”
The reproach with which the Baptist welcomes Pharisees and Sadducees is severe: “Brood of vipers!” He compares them to snakes that inject their poison of death in those who inadvertently come close to them. Then he moves on to the invective, the announcement of disasters that are about to hit them. They run the risk of being cut off like a tree that does not bear fruit and of being burnt like chaff. God’s wrath is incumbent on them.
We are faced with dramatic images that seem to refute the dream of Isaiah in the first reading.
The tone is threatening, and it is not surprising on the lips of John the Baptist. The preachers of that time expressed themselves that way. This is the language that often appears in the Bible. The precursor uses it to warn those who refuse the invitation to conversion; one is deprived of a loving encounter with Christ who comes to introduce him to his joy and his peace.
In the context of the whole gospel, the words of the precursor take on a meaning that goes beyond the immediate. It happened also for Caiaphas to say, without realizing it, a prophecy (Jn 11:49-51).
When he spoke of God’s wrath, John had no clear idea of how it would manifest.
The wrath of God is an image that recurs often in the Old Testament. It is not intended as an explosion of hatred on the victim. It is an expression of God’s love: he rails against evil, not against the person who does it. He does not want to hit the person, but to free each one from sin.
The ax, which cuts the trees at the root, has the same function given by Jesus to the scissors pruning the vine and freeing it from useless branches that deprive it of precious sap and suffocate it (Jn 15:2). The trees uprooted and thrown into the fire are not the people that God always loves as children, but the roots of evil that are present in every person and in every structure and need to be cut to pieces so that the healthy ones can sprout more buds (Mt 3:10).
The cuts are always painful, but those done by God are providential. They create the conditions for new branches to sprout and produce fruits.
The fan, finally, with which the Lord realizes his judgment, is a living image. It describes the way in which the work of every person is screened by God.
In human courts, judges take into account only the errors and pronounce judgment on the basis of the harm done. They take little account of good works. In the judgment of God, the exact opposite happens: He, with the winnowing fan of his word, puts every person under the discerning breath of his Spirit that blows away the chaff and leaves on the threshing floor only the precious grains: the works of love, few or many, that each one had performed.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.