Scripture notes – 3rd Sunday of Advent – Year B – 17th December 2023

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’s mass. St John the Baptist again has centre stage preparing for welcoming of Jesus more deeply into our lives.

The readings are available online here.

Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11
This is from a later prophet in the complex book of 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 back in the destruction the Holy Land had gone through in their absence.

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’ in Hebrew or ‘Christ’ in Greek and we usually think of it as belonging to Jesus. But for this prophet it was God’s selecting him for this role of bringing ‘good news’ – the same 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 which was 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 now express the mission of Christ; and the description is like a succinct, beautiful summary of what Jesus comes to do in his ministry on earth.

Response Luke 1:46-50, 53-54
This is the song of celebration that Mary sings in the gospel of Luke after she has heard the message of Gabriel that she is to bear a son by the power of the Holy Spirit – we will hear that account next week. Traditionally called ‘The Magnificat’ from the Latin of the opening word, these words too are ‘rich in biblical tradition’, including the words of the first reading. It is read daily in the evening 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 5:16-24
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.

In parallel to the first reading, which summarises the ministry of Jesus, this could be seen as summarising what should be our daily response.

John 1:6-8, 19-28
The liturgy focuses on John the Baptizer for a second week. John, like Mark is not concerned about John’s ministry except as he points to Jesus. There is much echoing 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. In contrast to Mark’s directness and simplicity, John’s opening verses are a deeper ‘in the beginning’, before Jesus’ earthly ministry. It uses the symbol of ‘the Word’ for the pre-existence of Christ, his relation to the creation and his birth as a human. (John 1:1ff) The liturgy will have those opening words during the Christmas season.

Into this ‘Prologue’ about Jesus before his birth, 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. This reading has the first of a number of times this Gospel uses the word ‘witness’ as meaning a testimony to the identity of Jesus.

The selection picks up at the time when John the Baptizer has been preaching long enough to worry the Jewish authorities about someone attracting so many followers. In John’s gospel, those called ‘the Jews’ are the leaders of that time in opposition to Jesus; of course, Jesus and his disciples were also Jewish by birth, but John seeing them as separate came from 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 liturgical role in the Jewish religion, and Levites were a group from the tribe of Levi who had ritual duties in the temple (Numbers 3:5-9). They saw themselves as in charge of the community of the people of God.

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. ‘Not the Prophet’: this may be the ‘prophet like Moses’ that Moses in Deuteronomy foresaw as a future guide for the people. Some see Jesus as fulfilling that prediction. The Baptizer identifies himself as the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ (Isaiah 40:3) which is how the other three evangelists also spoke of him. The ‘one coming after me’ before whom John the Baptist feels deep humility is Jesus, although not named here. In this Gospel, it is on the following day when John adds the prophecy that this one is he 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 Real Light coming into the world (John 1:9).

Joan Griffith

Suggestions for prayer or reflection

    • What good news might the Lord be bringing me this Advent? What broken-heartedness needs healing, what liberty am I lacking?
    • How can I ‘bring good news to the poor, bind up hearts that are broken; proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison’?