Rose colour today signals half-way through Advent. The first word of the mass at the entry antiphon is ‘Rejoice!’ – Gaudete in Latin – which is the traditional name for today. St John the Baptist again has centre stage in preparing for our welcoming of Jesus to his life on earth.
Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11
This is from a later prophet in the one book – ‘Third’ or ‘Trito-Isaiah’. The form of the first verses is an example of ‘the call of the prophet’ – the time when a prophet first receives God’s word with the message he is to share with the people. This prophet addressed the dispirited people who had returned from Exile but were not experiencing the happy and powerful times they had expected. Many of them were indeed poor and in need.
In his commentary (New Jerome Biblical Commentary) Lawrence Boadt, CSP, says, ‘Each phrase is rich in biblical tradition. Spirit signals the special action of God.’ ‘Anointed’ is the same word for Messiah or Christ, but for the prophet it would be God’s selecting him for this role or bringing ‘good news’ – words used in the New Testament for Christ’s message and which we heard in Mark last week. ‘A year of favour’: Boadt compares it to the ‘Jubilee’ year of the Old Law a time of rejoicing but also of settling land back to the original owners. Here, he says, all goes back to God who will distribute now to those in need of liberty and consolation. The last verses we hear come a little later, after a promise of the ‘New Jerusalem’ and these words of rejoicing are spoken by a personification of Jerusalem expressing the happiness of the redeemed people. The variety of images of earthly happiness suggests both physical and spiritual renewal.
The opening verses have a special significance for Christians, for in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth, opens the scroll of Isaiah, reads these words from it, and announces, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ The words of Isaiah become the mission of Christ.
Response Luke 1:46-50, 53-54
This is the song of celebration that Mary sings in Luke after she has heard the message of Gabriel (which we will hear next week.) Traditionally called ‘The Magnificat’ from the Latin of the opening word, this too is ‘rich in biblical tradition’, including the words of the first reading. It is read daily in the official prayer of the church (‘Breviary’ or Divine Office’). In our times, Pope Francis has expressed the same ‘option for the poor and oppressed’ as we hear from Mary.
1 Thessalonians 56-24
This is thought to be the first book of the New Testament, when St Paul was writing to his early converts to encourage them to be ready for the ‘last days’. They seem words for all time, however, with the happiness and peace which we focus on for Advent. We do not ‘make ourselves happy’ but trust God to bring us all his choicest gifts.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
The liturgy asks us to think about John the Baptizer for a second week. John, like Mark (and in contrast to Matthew and Luke) is not concerned about John’s ministry except as he points to Jesus. There is much here the same as last week’s reading, but note the subtle differences between the two evangelists. Mark’s ‘Beginning’ had the simple words ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ John’s is the last completed of the four gospels, and the evangelist has had time to reflect deeply on the meaning of Jesus and his life. Starting in the opening verses of the book, he reflects on what ‘Son of God’ means. John goes back to a ‘beginning’ long before the earthly ministry that Mark starts with. Using the title of ‘The Word’ John tells us Jesus was there before time of creation, and was ‘God with God’. The liturgy will have those opening words during the Christmas season.
Into this ‘Prologue’, John has interwoven the account of John the Baptizer who for all four evangelists is the one whose mission is the foundation Christ will build on. We hear the first of a number of times the Gospel uses the word ‘witness’, nearly always meaning a witness to the identity of Jesus. Our selection picks up at the time when John the Baptizer has been preaching long enough to worry the Jewish authorities about an outsider’s preaching. In John’s gospel, those called ‘the Jews’ are the leaders in opposition to Jesus – of course, Jesus and his disciples were also Jews, so the designation rests on the division that occurred when Christians were separated from those who kept to the Mosaic Law. The priests as descendants of Aaron the first high priest had the most important role, and Levites were a group from the tribe of Levi who had ritual duties in the temple (Numbers 3:5-9).
Mark hinted that John the Baptist had the role of Elijah as prophesied in Malachi. Here, however, John denies being Elijah, and obviously did not see himself as the physical return of Elijah – it would be later that Christians would see him as taking the symbolic role of the one preparing for the Last Days. ‘The Prophet’: this may be the ‘prophet like Moses’ that Moses in Deuteronomy foresaw as a future guide for the people. The Baptizer identifies himself as the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ (Isaiah 40:3) which is how the other three evangelists spoke of him. All four have the prophecy of ‘one coming after’ more powerful and before whom John the Baptist feels the deep humility. (In this Gospel, it is on the following day when John adds the prophecy of the one who ‘baptizes with Holy Spirit’.)
Although John the Baptist is in the distant past for us, the Church continues to see him as a witness that ‘everyone might believe’ in Jesus the Light of the world.