In today’s readings, there are two examples of the practice in the ancient world of writing in the name of a famous forerunner. These are not forgeries as seen in the modern sense. Robert A. Wild, S.J. explains, ‘In such cases the writer sought to extend the thought of his or her intellectual master to the problems of a later day.’
The readings are available online here. (See second set of readings)
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
These verses begin the second part of the long book named for the prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem (who lived in the 8th century BC) but obviously relate to the time when the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon was coming to an end (about 150 years later). This prophet, often called ‘Second’ (or ‘Deutero’) Isaiah, has a strong message of comfort, using many poetic techniques and literary forms to arouse an emotional response as well as belief. The opening words are the prophet’s ‘call’, the moment when he received his commission to bring God’s word to the people.
‘Console’ – repeated for emphasis – is the theme of the message. It is not just concerned with feelings, but also with strengthening – in the root meaning of ‘comfort’ as ‘strong with’. ‘Double punishment’ does not mean that God has given them more than they deserved for their failures, but is a reference to Jeremiah 16:18 calling for a complete purification.
‘A voice cries’ – Here this is a heavenly voice that the prophet heard. (The first three gospels will apply the ‘voice’ to John the Baptist coming in the desert, which fits in with today’s gospel.) There are two references the original hearers would have appreciated when they heard of the ‘highway in the desert’. The first was the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt led by God through the desert to the Promised Land. The second reference, with the idea of a smoothed out level road, was the custom in Babylon of making a special sacred way for celebrating their New Year festival, something the exiles would have witnessed.
Next we hear the voice of the prophet to the people. They too are told to speak the words of comfort and joy to each other. Then two paradoxical images for the coming of the Lord. First, he is like a conqueror, coming with all his trophies – something that the Israelites in Babylon would have good reason to remember from earthly conquests. It stresses God power. Then abruptly, a change to the Lord as like a good human shepherd, tenderly and sensitively caring for each with their individual needs.
Psalm 103/104:1-4, 24-25, 27-30
The full psalm is praise for God as Creator, following the images in the opening of Genesis. The exuberance and the imagery are not unlike that in Second Isaiah, and our last verses with his theme of renewal fits the prophet’s words of forgiveness and renewed life.
Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7
Titus is the first of three books called ‘The Pastoral Letters’ as they are concerned with the leaders who are addressed (Titus and Timothy) and their young Christian communities. The atmosphere is of a time later than St Paul, and this the first readers would have known, but accepted the words as carrying on his message in the communities he formed. They concern the importance of the teachings and the practices they are to follow. A special theme of Titus is emphasis on salvation, which is shown in our selections for today. The Letter stresses that salvation is a free gift of God, not something that we can deserve or work for. It does, however, mean that in accepting this salvation, we live a life as actively responsive to God’s love as we can.
Luke 3:15-1, 21-22
On two Sundays of Advent, the liturgy had Luke’s account of John the Baptist, including the quotation from Isaiah identifying John as the ‘voice crying in the desert’. This week it repeats John’s words saying he is not the Messiah, but the ‘preparer’. In the verses between, which are not quoted here, Luke has moved John off the scene. (This is a common literary practice of Luke, and it is effective in showing that something new is happening next.)
Luke puts Jesus now among those who had come to John with the intent of changing their lives, but now indicates something different happened with Jesus’ baptism – a moment which he does not describe.
Next comes a short account of Jesus after he has come from the water. Only Luke tells us Jesus was praying – he will show Jesus in prayer more than any other gospel. There is no detail of his prayer, nor any description of his feelings. All four gospels tell of the descent of the Spirit on Jesus, but only Luke says it was in ‘bodily form’ – which would seem to mean it could be seen by others. (The Gospel of John states that John the Baptist saw the Spirit and testified to this, and took it as identification of ‘the one coming after’.) In Luke there is no mention of anyone else witnessing this, nor hearing the words of the voice from heaven. All attention is on Jesus, with the simple, yet powerful, picture of him in prayer and in communication with the Father in heaven and with the Spirit moving between them.
It makes this a place in reading the Gospel where we can pause to contemplate this mystery. The gospels never use our theological words ‘Holy Trinity’. What they do by story and poetic imagery, is try to suggest how the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was shown in the life of Jesus. As well, they indicate how we are to be drawn in this relationship by the response of faith, prayer and action.