Sunday Scripture: First Sunday of Advent (Year C)


Welcome to this, the nineteenth 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:

Waiting for the LORD

  • First Reading: Jeremiah 33: 14-16
  • Psalm 24: 4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; Response v. 1.
  • Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 3:12—4:2.
  • Gospel: Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36.
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.

Jeremiah is one of the latter prophets of Israel, his service to the LORD and His people spanned more than forty years (627-c. 582 B.C.), long enough for Judah to pass under the rule of five kings and a governor who were subservient to the dominion of three successive foreign empires. This was one of the most troubled periods in the history of the near East. Jeremiah witnessed the fall of a great empire and the rise of one even greater. In the midst of his turmoil, the kingdom of Judah, then in the hands of deplorable kings, comes to its downfall by resisting this overwhelming force of history. 

The prophet's message is one of action. Genuine prophecy is more than a mere message from another world, momentarily altering the speaker's state of consciousness, and then passes through his lips (arguably the way Mohammedan prophecy is purported to have been revealed). Jeremiah teaches us that this is counterfeit prophecy (c.f. 23:25-40). Genuine prophecy is a word from God intended to take flesh permanently in the life of His people. By God's action, the word is first embodied in the prophet's life and, over time, shapes his whole existence. The prophet stand-in the midst of God's people as a sign illustrating the effectiveness of God's judgement and promise contained in the word he speaks. We find the interaction between the divine and human life illustrated most fully in Jeremiah whose life is described in detail unparalleled among all the prophets.
This week we are treated to a portion of an anthology on messianism which runs from 33: 14-26 and constitutes a short collection of Jeremiah's messianic oracles. 15-16 uses the prophet's oracle on the future king in 23:5-6 re-using the negative images therein, but speaks of the permanence of the Davidic dynasty where 23:5 spoke of an individual Davidic king. Jerusalem replaces Israel and is called by this new king's name. 17-22 constitutes a solemn prophetic affirmation of the perennial permanence of the Davidic monarchy and the Levitical priesthood, which are closely connected; the phenomenon corresponds well to the postexilic institutional atmosphere (cf. Zech 4:14; 6:13). This is the only place in Jeremiah where the revival of the priesthood is an object of concern. The restoration of the Davidic kings alludes to a renewed national existence. Healing recalls the need to overcome sinfulness; the reinstating of celebrations indicates ongoing life.

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 First Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians was written to his new converts in Thessalonica which was, at the time, the second largest city in Greece after Athens. It is a genuine letter of Paul, ascribed to him by the earliest traditions and replete with his literary style and language. It is widely held to be the oldest letter we have from Paul and may even be the oldest book of the New Testament, dated 50 or 51 A.D. Paul writes out of concern for those facing a growing tide of paganism and persecution. He is eager to return (3:10) and encourages them to be chaste and charitable (4:1-12) and to console the bereaved among them with the hope of resurrection (4:13-14). The letter is punctuated with expressions of joy, gratitude, and encouragement. Paul affirms them for their astonishing growth (1:8) and appeals to them to continue their good work (4:1; 5:11).

This week Paul asks the Thessalonians to abound in the divine love that Christ pours into our hearts through the Spirit (Rom 5:5). This is a love which we feel reaching out to each other in the family of faith as well as to all persons in the human family, irrespective of whether they are a friend or an enemy (Mt 5:43-48). Holiness of life is willed by God. It is what is best for us, what makes us happiest. Growth in holiness, or progressive sanctification, is a process that begins with God's work in Baptism (1 Cor 6:11) and continues when we begin to abound in love and exert the moral effort needed to overcome sinful and selfish habits (Rom 6:19).

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:
"Man stands between God and nothingness, and he must choose." --Blessed John Paul II
“They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory:” If we think how helpless people feel in the face of the full fury of a natural disaster, we can begin to understand the mood Jesus conveys here. Jesus details the nature of human perplexity and its cause. Humans will be overcome with fear. In addition, they will look with ‘expectation’ (elsewhere in the New Testament this word is only found at Acts 12:11) about what is happening in the world because heavenly powers will be shaken. The Son of Man is a regal figure who receives kingdom authority and comes with superhuman majesty. This is the title for Jesus which appears most in the New Testament. It is a mysterious name which Jesus frequently drops into His teaching and conversations, often attaching it to some of the more spectacular claims made in the Scriptures. Despite its familiarity, it is little wonder we struggle to understand what He means by it, indeed, even Jesus contemporaries appear broadly puzzled by it, even asking "Who is this Son of man?" in John 12:34. In fact, Jesus wasn't the first to use the title. It occurs over one hundred times in the Old Testament, often as an idiom. The title bears much deeper consideration, but for now, let us say that it is an expression which tells us a great deal about the Messiah and His mission. It is a versatile title, as demonstrated by study of its roots in the OT, which has the capacity to draw our attention to things human and mortal and to lift us up to see a glorious king seated next to the LORD. Who then is this Son of man? It is Jesus Christ, who conquered evil and now sits enthroned in heaven, exercising His universal kingship over the world through the Church.

Drawing them all together...

Advent is the beginning of the new liturgical year, a period of mystery and excitement that sums up the whole spectrum of our belief. We are preparing for Christmas--and the meaning of this feast, the coming of Jesus, encapsulates our faith in a nutshell.

In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI says:
"From the moment of his birth, [Jesus] belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms…. Perhaps one could say that humanity’s silent and confused dreams of a new beginning came true in this event—in a reality such that only God could create…. Not only do [the three Magi] represent the people who have found the way to Christ: they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him."
This is a mystery of faith, hope and love, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Christian religion is built on the central tenet of the Incarnation: that God came among us to be with us, to change us, and as our brother and friend. So we are getting ready for a birthday, the biggest birthday in the world, which in one way or another, no one can be totally unaware of. This commemoration is an opening into the divine mysteries: it is not simply a happy anniversary. In fact it takes us into a triple process of expectation.

First, we look to the past, and relive those many centuries when the people of God were waiting for the Lord's promises to be fulfilled. He visited them in their darkness and national failure, with wonderful words of consolation about His special servant, the anointed one, the perfect Son of David, who would save and transform His people. We celebrate the arrival of this Son in the person of Jesus; and we recall the joy of Jesus' life on earth; but He has also promised us that He will return, and no matter what happens, we must hold fast to this promise. And if we rejoice in Jesus' first coming, we must also rejoice in the hopeful anticipation of His second, when all will be fulfilled.

In the meantime, we expect Him at Christmas, and indeed we open our hearts now in joy to receive Him in spirit, and in the sacrament. We must prepare His kingdom now and always, in honesty and integrity--and the key to this is our love for one another and the whole human race, as St. Paul admonishes us. That is the true heart of our faith and hope.

Advent means a readiness to have eternity and time meet not only in Christ but in us, in our life, in our world, in our time. If we are to enter into the beginning of the new, we must accept the death of the old…. I begin to live to Christ when I come to the ‘end’ or to the ‘limit’ of what divides me from my fellow man: when I am willing to step beyond this end, cross the frontier, become a stranger, enter into the wilderness which is not ‘myself,’…where I am alone and defenceless in the desert of God.

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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