Sunday Scripture: Second Sunday of Advent (Year C)



Welcome to this, the twentieth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

Prepare a Way for the LORD

  • First Reading: Baruch 5:1-9
  • Psalm 125; Response v. 3.
  • Second Reading: Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11.
  • Gospel: Luke 3:1-6.
First, a little preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

Baruch is concerned with prayer, Jerusalem, the Temple, and the integrity of Judaism in a Gentile world. Baruch is not a unified text but a collection of diverse material that includes poetry, prayers and exhortations. Most scholars consider it to be by three or four different authors, although it is attributed to the secretary and companion of Jeremiah (Baruch). The characteristics of the book point to a composition in the latter part of the second century B.C., sometime after the Maccabean revolt. All the texts in Baruch share the common presupposition that the Jewish people are spiritual exiles in the world. Their sin in the past produced this present state of alienation from God and dispersal from their land. Now they must repent, come to a new appreciation of the Lord's revelation and promises and renounce all forms of idolatry. Each of the four main thematic sections of Baruch exhibit a distinctive theology:

1. Repentance in light of the Scriptures (prayer) 1:15-3:8.
2. Wisdom (poem) 3:9-4:4.
3. God's promises (psalm) 4:5-5:9.
4. The denunciation of idolatry (Jeremiah's Letter) 6:1-72.

This week: How appropriate that  this week's reading comes from the section of Baruch concerned with God's promises? The Psalmist draws upon Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah (Is 40-55; 56-66) in order to present us with a vision for the fullness of time, when God will reveal His glory by gathering all His people to jerusalem from the four corners of the earth. Of course the "flattening of each high mountain...to make the ground level" is a prefiguring of the call of John the Baptist as in Is 40:3-4 a road is levelled through for the most direct march to Jerusalem, strongly linking the first reading to the Gospel.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

The Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians was written by St. Paul in A.D. 54 from Ephesus while he was on his second missionary journey. It's style and theology are typically Pauline, although the letter does show a friendlier side to the Apostle which is more often hidden in his more polemical and formal writings. Philippians is referred to as one of the "captivity epistles" because Paul composed it whilst in prison (1:13). Given this fact, it is remarkably up beat in tone. The letter is almost entirely positive, with only brief warnings and almost no polemics.

This week Paul holds up Jesus Christ as the model of humility and selflessness and the reading begins with an expression of joy, one of several themes which punctuate this epistle, and which is listed by Paul in Gal 5:22 as among the fruits produced in us by the Holy Spirit. Paul is confident that his reader's end will correspond to their beginning and that they will be lead, by the graces of Baptism, to the glory of eternal life. Their progress and growth in union with Christ is to bring an increased personal knowledge of the Christian reality, marked by a refined and keen awareness of its meaning.

The Gospel According to St. Luke: Luke is not only a theologian; he is also a “consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic”[1]. Luke begins his Gospel with a clearly stated aim: “to draw up an account of the events that have happened”[2]. Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four gospels, this despite the fact that it only represents half the Lucan writings; Luke’s Gospel was originally joined to Acts as part of a two-volume work [3]. This is evident in the Gospel itself, which frequently looks forward to Acts and Paul’s mission.

Brown indicates that the Gospel was written for churches in Greece and Syria, areas affected by Paul’s mission either directly, or indirectly [4]. Lucan thought and proclivities can be detected in the extent to which the author changes the Marcan material, which makes up about thirty-five percent of Luke. Luke certainly improves Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, as evidenced in 4:1,31 and 38. Luke alters the Latinism kēnsos (= census) in 20:22 from Mark 12:14 and substituting the more exact “craftiness- treachery” for “hypocrisy” in Mark 12:15 [5]

Luke alters the Marcan sequence to accomplish his goals as stated in the prologue: to write carefully and in an orderly manner [6], for example he puts Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the opening of the Galilean ministry (Luke 4:16-30) rather than after some time had elapsed (Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum.

Christologically, Luke is more reverential about Jesus than Mark and he avoids Marcan passages that might make Jesus seem weak, harsh or emotional (e.g. Mark 10:14 where Jesus is indignant). He also stresses detachment from possessions (Luke 5:11,28), the Twelve are even forbidden to take a staff [7]!

Adrian Hastings, in his book Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, makes particular capital over Luke’s allusion to the guilt of Jerusalem. Hastings suggests that this is because Jerusalem represented the old, exclusive Israel. Brown also draws attention to this point in An Introduction to the New Testament, where he asks if Pilate’s triple declaration of Jesus’ innocence[8] represents an attempt to convince Greco-Roman readers that the Jews were totally responsible for the crucifixion [9]. For Hastings, Luke demonstrates a strong affinity for the universality of Christianity and its apostolate to the Gentiles [10] and points out to the Jews that they are the ones who have constantly rejected the messengers of God:
“Hence it is not surprising if they now find themselves cut off from the new church and Holy People of God”[11]
Hastings states that this demonstrates that Luke was writing so that Christians might understand that Jerusalem had rejected Our Lord and thus had been rejected and was no longer the centre of God’s church, which had turned to the conversion of the Gentiles [12]. It would seem to me that this idea would have been greatly aided by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Brown however, notes that Acts 4:25-28 clearly blames Pilate and mitigates that this may have been an attempt to persuade Roman officials to deal fairly with Christians [13]. Brown eventually concludes that the description of Jewish leaders resisting the spread of Christianity springs from a desire to explain why Christian preachers and especially Paul turned to the Gentiles [14].

The fact that the last half of Acts concentrates on Paul’s career raises the likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to the churches descended from the Pauline mission [15]. Talbert concludes his study of Luke-Acts with the finding that the Gospel was indeed motivated by the “churchly situation” [16]; The community was troubled by a concern for the true Christian tradition [17]. Luke writes to aid Christians in these communities in their self-understanding, helping them to know that there was nothing subversive in their origins that should cause them to come into conflict with their Roman rulers.

The Lucan Gospel differs in many ways to Matthew making it seem likely that this Gospel was addressed to a different church (q.v.) [18]. The end of Acts attributed to Paul also indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, which makes the intended audience unlikely to be Jewish Christians [19]. This is corroborated by the way that Luke drops Marcan Aramaic expressions and place-names in his work.

Luke intends to trace the history of God’s plan from the coming of Jesus, to the fulfilment of the mission He gave to His disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth [20]. The earthly ministry of Jesus and all the events before the Ascension are the turning point in human history for Luke.

Footnotes.

[1] Talbert, C.H., Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts, (SBLMS, Montana, 1974) p.1.
[2] Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (William Collins and Sons, London, 1971) p.39.
[3] Brown, R., An Introduction to the New Testament, (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.225.
[4] Ibid, p.226.
[5] Ibid p.264.
[6] Acts 1:3.
[7] Luke 9:3.
[8] Luke 23.
[9] Brown, R., op. Cit., (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.271-2.
[10] Hastings, A., Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, (William Clowes & Sons, London, 1958) p.176.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid p.183.
[13] Brown, R., op. Cit.,, (Doubleday, USA, 1997) p.271.
[14] Ibid p.272.
[15] Ibid, p.270.
[16] Talbert, C.H., Ibid, p.141.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Brown, R., Ibid, p.270.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Léon-Dufour, X., The Gospels and the Jesus of History, (William Collins and Sons, London, 1968) p.150. 

If this post on Luke sparked your interest, there's a post on the historicity of the Synoptics here.

This week: Luke situates John the Baptist's ministry in real time, in the context of world events, intending readers to view him in the light of both civil and religious history. In doing this he is true to his stated purpose: "to write an orderly account" (Lk 1:1).

Luke moves from the stage of world events to a more narrow schema by introducing the the Roman Emperor (Tiberius), Palestine's local rulers (Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias), and Israel's priestly leaders (Annas, Caiaphas). Luke uses Isaiah's words to announce the restoration of Israel and the world (Is 40:3-5). John the Baptist is the desert voice, preaching a unique baptism, a washing of preparation for the coming of God's salvation. Such preparation involved a change of thinking that in turn changed the way one lived before God. John's ministry reflects the repetition of a basic salvation pattern of God, a second exodus. It fulfills the promise of a voice calling the people to prepare of God's powerful coming in salvation. Those who wish to see God's hand must be prepared to listen for Him. Part of that readiness means knowing one's real spiritual status before God and having a sense of humility that drives one to see God's forgiveness.
Drawing them all together...
Today constitutions an affirmation of the very essence of Advent in the anticipation and hope of a glorious future. In the readings, this is presented to us through an extraordinary interplay of past, present and future. All of these different aspects are caught up in the Gospel: we are taken back in history to a time of expectation of the imminent advent of someone special, whose arrival is anticipated in terms pertaining to the coming of a great king. He is heralded by a messenger who is himself quite out of the ordinary; his coming will affect nature itself; his arrival is seen as a day of salvation. What is this event? An ordinary man from Nazareth was heralded by John the Baptist, yet this ordinary man's words and actions were the agents of a transformation in our perception of the meanings of human life and the destiny of the world.

The arrival of Jesus is the advent of the day of the Lord, that time of decisive and ultimate significance. this vision was very much part of the prophetic inheritance of Israel, where the actual events of history are given a new layer of meaning that looks beyond the present political circumstances to a transfigured future that is nothing other than theDay of the Lord. Jerusalem becomes the metaphor for that focus of salvation in the future. This is the answer to the plea in the Psalm: the remembrance of the Lord's saving action in the past speaks to present anguish, conveying a new sense of hope and joy in the future. John the Baptist and St. Paul tell us to prepare the Way. St. Paul remembers the past, and considers the extraordinary challenge of the present, which has been transformed morally by the power of love born of faith. This ultimate transformation of the future, when we will be delivered from our human bondage on the Day of Christ, the definitive moment of all history, the Omega Point of all creation.

Bibliography:

Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991.
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London: Nelson, 1969.
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 2/ December 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.

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