Second Sunday In Advent - Year A
Notes on the Gospel
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:1-12 - NRSV)
There are three particular words relevant to today's Gospel and the season of Advent:
In the face of mystery, ordinary language and rational thought are not enough. We need rituals and symbols, art and poetry to engage life's biggest issues, issues such as birth and death, love and forgiveness. The English word "to baptize" comes from the Greek word baptizein meaning "to immerse." Ritual immersion, symbolizing purification of life, was a Jewish custom in the time of Jesus. Thus we have the man known as John the Baptist. (See also Luke 3:16-17.) It is uncertain whether Jesus actually "baptized" anyone in this way. (See John 3:22-23; 4:1-3.) The Apostles and first disciples certainly did baptize people as an initiation into the Christian life. (See Acts 2:38; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16; 1Corinthians1:13-16; 6:11; Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:3.)
Our word eschatology comes from the Greek word Eskaton, meaning the last thing or the end time. In both Judaism and Christianity, eschatology refers to our thinking and writing about the "end time" which will be a consummation of God's plan for creation. In other words, history is understood as purposeful, it is going somewhere.
So we read in the Prophet Isaiah:
"The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (11:6-9)
And we read in the Didache – an instructional Christian document dating from perhaps the late first century:
"Give thanks in this manner. First, over the cup: 'We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the holy vine of thy son David, which thou hast made known to us through Jesus thy Son: thine be the glory for ever.' Then over the broken bread: 'We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Son: thine be the glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and was gathered together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom: for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever and ever.'
"Let none eat or drink of this Eucharist of yours except those who have been baptized into the name of the Lord. For on this point the Lord said, 'Do not give what is holy to the dogs '
(x) And when you have had enough give thanks in this form. 'We give thanks to thee, holy Father, for thy holy name, which thou hast made to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Son: thine be the glory for ever. Thou, almighty Master, didst create all things for thy name's sake; thou didst give food and drink to men for their enjoyment, so that they might give thanks to thee; and on us thou didst bestow spiritual food and drink and eternal life through thy Son. Above all we give thanks to thee because thou art mighty; thine be the glory for ever. Remember, 0 Lord, thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and "to make it perfect in thy love" and "gather it together from the four winds" – the sanctified Church into thy Kingdom, which thou didst prepare for it: for thine is the power and the glory forever.
"'Let grace come and this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. If any man is holy, let him come: he who is not, let him repent. Maran atha. Amen.'" (The Didache, ix-x, cited by Henry Bettenson, ed, The Early Christian Fathers, Oxford University Press, 1956/1984, 50-51.)
Note the Aramaic words – Maran atha – which had passed into liturgical usage very early in the life of the Church. St Paul concludes his First Letter to the Corinthians (16:22) with the same expression. It is difficult to know precisely what it means but it seems to mean "The Lord is coming" or "has come" or "Come , O Lord". It does seem to be an eschatological acclamation.
Eschatology is generally associated with the Parousia, another Greek word which means the coming (of Jesus). The word Parousia was often used in the ancient world to refer to the public appearance of a person of importance. John the Baptist seems to imply this usage in the Gospel for today. For the disciples of Jesus, however, it has a much more profound significance, associated as it is with the "end time" and the coming of the Lord in glory.
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
The eschatology, such as John the Baptist announces, only makes sense when we are grounded beyond time. In other words, we can only gain a full and rich sense of time in the context of eternity. If we are stuck in time, we easily slip into the business of counting the days and trying to estimate the time "it" will all happen. Plenty of this was already going on in the first century – see for example St Paul's Letters to the Thessalonians. People keep re-appearing through history to announce "the end is nigh". And every time it re-appears it confirms the worst suspicions of those who think religion is for cranks and crack pots only. It prompts the mocking comment that Christians live for "the pie in the sky when you die".
Advent calls us into the tension that we might rather forget. We are both – and at the same time – in time and beyond time. We are only too aware of time. Often enough it passes too quickly or too slowly. The before and after of our lives is inescapable.
But we are also – occasionally at least – aware of timelessness, of sometimes being beyond time. These are often experiences of great harmony and peace. They can emerge in experiences of intimacy and love, when we caught up in an absorbing pursuit or a moment of deep reflection. People who are practiced at contemplative prayer may know this experience. It is every bit as real as our experience of time.
Christian eschatology says the time is now. Eternity comes to us in the moment. The Kingdom "has come near". In fact, it is right here in the stuff of our lives, waiting to be liberated in our world.
The Kingdom – like the coming of the Lord – is pure gift. But the gift implies a task. Preparing for the gift – "prepare the way of the Lord" – is hard work. What sort of work? We could sum it up very simply as the work of getting rid of whatever might obstruct or prevent the victory of love here and now. We do our best to enable love to triumph in our lives – and we wait! The Kingdom will not be brought about by us, only prepared for.
The central call of the Gospel in Advent is: "As you have been loved into freedom, be in the world in such a way that God may love others into freedom through you."
Michael Whelan SM