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3rd Sunday of Advent

05 December 2019

Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146.4-10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11


OUR first reading gives us an almost overwhelming range of images for Israel’s redemption; a return from both literal and spiritual exile. The desert — which the people have to cross to return home — will “rejoice and blossom”. All sight and hearing, speech and mobility will be restored. There will also be a restoration of community, as “the ransomed of the Lord” return along the “Holy Way” established by the Lord. Landscape and people burst into song as God redeems them from “sorrow and sighing”.

The ministry of John the Baptist also called God’s people into the desert, to begin their journey home from spiritual exile. This week, we encounter him in prison, sending his disciples to enquire whether Jesus is “the one to come”. John has no illusions about his own status. As Romano Guardini explains, the Baptist stands in the line of Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah, who lived “supernatural lives in the grip of the Holy Spirit”. Jesus tells the crowd that John is the last and greatest of these prophets, and yet “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”; for the Kingdom fulfils all these prophecies.

John’s ministry is one of humility and kenosis. Guardini writes that “his particular vocation was to lead the way to the promised realm, to direct others to it, but in some special sense to remain without.” Jesus sends John’s disciples back to tell him that Isaiah’s great prophecy is being fulfilled in their sight. But John himself does not behold it. In this, he resembles Moses, leading his people only to the edge of the promised land. “For Moses this was punishment; he had failed in an hour of trial,” whereas, for John, “it was not punishment but vocation” (The Lord).

To follow his vocation, John has to exercise patience. “In the grip of the Holy Spirit”, he has the bravery to confront the injustice and decadence of King Herod and his court (which is why we find him in prison), but his preaching focuses on preparing the people for God’s decisive action. In his cell, he is still seeking to discern where the Lord is at work rather than devising his own plan for Israel’s deliverance. His is not the false patience of cowardice and inertia: he is willing to speak and act in ways that are costly and sacrificial. It is the patience of a man courageous even unto death — but humble enough to watch and wait, so that his action points to, and participates in, God’s action.

It is, therefore, fitting that our lections set the story of John in prison alongside James’s counsel of patience. The Epistle of James could not be accused of encouraging the false patience of inertia: it is best known for its emphasis on works as the evidence of faith and its condemnation of excessive deference to the rich and powerful. But it counsels its readers to watch and wait, just as a farmer in first-century Palestine would have waited for the “early” rains (which in October and November provided for the spring harvest) and the “late” rains (which in April and May enabled a plentiful summer harvest).

While John prepared the people for Christ’s first coming, James prepares the Church for Jesus’s return in glory: “The Judge is standing at the doors.” As Kelly Anderson explains, God’s perspective on time is different from ours: “The Old Testament prophets also speak of God’s final judgment and salvation as ‘near’ or soon (Jeremiah 51.33; Baruch 4.22, 24; Zephaniah 1.14).”

James counsels his readers to take these earlier prophets as “an example of suffering and patience”, as they both endure the persecution and injustice of the current age, and bear witness to the deliverance that is to come. Throughout scripture, “the Holy Spirit’s goal is always to rouse human beings to make ready for God’s salvation and judgement” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: James, First, Second, and Third John).

On this Gaudete Sunday, there is an undercurrent of comfort in all our lections, as penitential purple gives way, for one day, to the rose of consolation and refreshment. We wait for our Judge in awe, and yet also in hope. For he has taken flesh, that the whole created order may find its home in him. His ransomed shall return “with singing” and “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.”

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