Sunday Scripture: Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)




Welcome to this, the twenty-first 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:

The Message of the Baptist

St. John the Baptist by Donatello

  • First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-18
  • Psalm 12:2-6; Response v. 6.
  • Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7.
  • Gospel: Luke 3:10-18.
First, a short 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.

Zephaniah is the first classical prophet to surface in Judah after more than a half century following Isaiah's career. He prophesied under King Josiah but before his religious reform, so about 635—630 B.C. He appears to be a native of Jerusalem with connections to the royal court.

Zephaniah considers himself to be living in the breach between the closing of an era awaiting its final overthrow and the beginning of a period of restoration. He surveyed history with a broad vision by which he could locate the destiny of Judah and Jerusalem within the framework of what was happening in the surrounding nations of the world.

The words of Zephaniah contribute to the tradition that Jesus draws upon when He speaks of judgement and promise in the Gospel of Matthew. When explaining the meaning of the parable about the weeds growing among the wheat, Jesus uses Zephaniah's introductory words of divine judgement to describe the actions of the Angels whom the Son of Man sends to expel all who do evil from His kingdom (Mt 13:41; cf. Zeph 1:3). Thus Jesus indicates to us that Zephaniah's words should awaken us from spiritual complacency by causing us to examine whether we are the wheat of the weeds in the Church (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43).

Perhaps most interestingly, in Zephaniah we discern a clear foreshadowing of Jesus' description of God's people in the Sermon on the Mount. It is not the mighty but the meek who will inherit the earth (Mt 5:4; cf. Ps 37:11). Zephaniah offers a graphic illustration of this principle in his promise that the humble remnant of Judah will take over the lands of surrounding nations (2:7, 9).

This week: We have one of those almost scary passages in terms of how clearly it seems to speak of the coming of Jesus. The passage is about YHWH's intervention. YHWH's presence "in the midst of" Jerusalem serves as defensive and protective. YHWH's love is dynamic in the Old Testament.

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 tells the Philippian Christians to rejoice in the Lord always, to have no anxiety at all: the Lord is near. This speaks of ready access to Jesus through prayer which we should all take advantage of, seeking His help and consolation in times of need. Paul asserts that this assurance should be the foundation of the Philippian's forbearance, and also ours too! The peace that God gives is personified; like a sentinel it will stand guard over the hearts and minds of Christians providing peace of mind and the sort of tranquility of heart and soul that only comes from Christ (Jn 14:27). Paul insists that if we pray about our problems rather than worry about them, God will protect us from the doubts and disturbances that weaken our confidence in His fatherly care (1 Pet 5:7). Jesus gives similar instructions in Mt 6:25-34 (CCC 2633).

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: John directs his message to all persons and professions. The spiritual renewal he calls for entails among other things, a return to social justice (3:11,14), honesty (3:13), and generosity (3:11) CCC 2447. In vs 15 the people, filled with expectation, ask in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. The answer John gives to those ready to repent (i.e. those who ask 'What should we do?') reveals that Jesus' radical love—commandment was throughly anticipated in the Old Covenant. Indeed it was something that could dawn on any unspoiled conscience.
In effect, the crowd is asking John what the product that reflects repentance actually is. John's reply is very practical: he points to meeting the needs of others. Those who are repentant are not to worry about social separation or sacrifice; they are to care for the needs of their neighbours. The fundamental ethic involves an unselfish approach to life which sees a person in basic need and gives a spare possession to meet that need. John says that this concern to meet the basic needs of others is the proper fruit that grows out of repentance. How Trinitarian is this! He is preaching the Trinitarian ideal of relationship: communion-in love-without rivalry. Thus repentance reflects itself in practical ethics: it requires fair business practices, not abusing one's power, fairness to one's neighbours, etc. Repentance exhorts people to be fair with others and meet basic needs with fundamental aid. This is what God desires of those who know He is present and coming: a concern for Him is expressed through concern for one's neighbour.

Drawing them all together...

Gaudete Sunday! How rose are your priest's vestments?

The day takes its name from the Latin word for Rejoice, the first word of the introit of today's Mass:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.
Which means:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.
— Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1

It is a time of great joy, as we approach Christmas. The last line of the Gospel fixes the glowing theme of the day—joy and proclamation. Our attention is focused firmly on John the Baptist, the true herald of Jesus, the one who embodies the great themes of Law and Prophecy. Always so closely associated with Jesus, in his origins, his family, and his public ministry, the Baptist remains a starkly striking figure, as one can reflect looking at Donatello's statue pictured here. The Baptist's words challenged every presupposition, and in their emphasis on repentance, firmly establish the way to the opening of our hearts. In his self-effacing witness to Jesus, he remains our model for all time. The simplicity and directness of his message reveals the purity and goodness of the Law: to treat others as one would like to be treated. He provides the answer to the perennial question: "What must we do?"

The expectancy his testimony generated is associated with the Good News. This Good News is preeminently a source of joy because it focuses on the nature of God, who He is, and what He does. The Prophets always understood this. In this week's reading, Zephaniah speaks words of comfort in a specific historical context, but these suddenly take off and acquire implications transcending any actual time and place. They become a universal statement, about a God who saves, who brings joy because "He remembers His love". Knowing Him means benefiting from His saving power. This is why St. Paul can openly call us to rejoice. Because the Lord is near we can be happy, we can show a patient compassion towards those who have difficulties that we either do not understand or find difficult to tolerate, we can gain strength and confidence, born of faith, and we can be agents of peace in a world of tumult and chaos. John the Baptist's towering witness to truth in its integrity reveals the simple directness of God's saving power, a power that fills us with peace and joy because it renews us by His love. The first verse of the Psalm is sums it all up for us in the most beautiful way:

"Truly, God is my salvation, I trust, I shall not fear."

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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