A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Archive for December, 2013

Are you the one who is to come?

In order to understand what the Gospels are saying about Jesus, it is first necessary  to understand the relationship between the Old Tetament and the New Testament.  At the time of Jesus’ ministry, there was no New Testament.  There were only the Jewish scriptures called the TaNaK.  Torah (=Law, the first five books of the Bible, what we Christians call the Pentateuch); Nebiim (=the Prophets); and Nebiim (=the other writings.) We Christians call the TaNaK the Old Testament.

After Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, a tremendous impact had been made on his disciples.  Many of them had witnessed his life, miracles, death, and resurrection, so they were most anxious to share the Jesus experience with others.  But the only scripture available to them was the TaNaK.  Thus they looked for corresponding themes between the TaNaK and their “Jesus event”  to come up and explain who Jesus was.

For us Catholics, the Sunday worship service has a liturgyof the Word and a liturgy of the Eucharist.  The liturgy of the Word normally has a reading from the Old Testament, and two from the New Testament (the first, a reading from the Pauline corpus, the second from one of the Gospels.)  Usually, there is a thematic correspondence between the Old Testament reading and the Gospel.

In the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, the Old Testament reading is from the book of Isaiah (35:1-6), and the Gospel reading is from Matthew (11:2-11).  Undoubtedly,  there are several corresponding themes in both readings.  But one that is quite significant for me is the corresponding theme of SALVATION, viewed in two aspects, namely, Salvation by name, and Salvation by the working of wonders.

First, Salvation by name.  The Hebrew word for “save” is yasha‘.  This is the root for the names of Isaiah and Jesus.  Isaiah spoke about salvation in the future (35:4).  Throughout his Gospel, Matthew also speaks about salvation in the future (through Jesus), most notably in the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Advent (3:1-12).

Second, Salvation by working wonders.  Assuring the people Israel that salvation would come, Isaiah indicated that it would be accompanied with wonderful works, namely, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the mute will speak (35:5-6).  In Matthew’s Gospel (11:2-11) when John’s disciples asked Jesus “Are you the one who is to come…?” Jesus answers by referring to his own experience of working wonders on others.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see…”  The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and other wonders (miracles) indicating that salvation has come.

What can we learn from these readings of Isaiah and Matthew?  One thing we can learn is that in order to understand what is said about Jesus in the Gospels,  is better understood when we have a better grasp of the Old Testament background.

Another thing to be learned is to be aware that the chief liturgical seasons of the year (Advent-Christmas; Lent-Easter; Pentecost) celebrate something important in the life of Christ.  For example Advent/Christmas celebrate the theological concept of “God with his people” (which is what the word Immanuel means.)   Isaiah speaks about Immanuel and what he will do (Isaiah 7-12).  Lent/Easter focuses on Jesus as the Suffering Servant, the one who suffers for others.  Isaiah (43-53) often speaks of the Suffering Servant.  The prophet Jeremiah is also seen as a model for Jesus in his last days.

Consequently, when one encounters the admonition “Study the Bible,” the entire Bible is meant.  This is so because  as we fully experience the liturgical cycle, we who claim to be true disciples of Jesus, can answer the question posed to Jesus by John’s disciples, namely, “Are you the one who is to come?”  The affirmative answer will say that because of our Baptism we have come and will continue to go representing Jesus wherever we go.

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A voice crying in the wilderness

During the Advent season, John the Baptist is a key figure,  primarily because he speaks of the “coming” of Jesus.  If we look at Matthew 3:1-12, the focus becomes a bit clearer.  John says “…the kingdom of heaven is NEAR.” (Matt. 3:2)  Further down in the Gospel reading,  John says, “…one who is more powerful than I is coming  AFTER me….”  (Matt. 3:11)  The capitalized words speak of a proximate future.

And yet, John’s role in this Gospel reading appears to indicate that he is a link between the two Testaments.  Isaiah the prophet is cited as if he were speaking of John.  Then there are some references that are relevant to both Testaments, namely, “desert” and “saving water.”

First of all, the “desert.”  The desert, in biblical thinking, is seen as a place of purification.  It is in the Sinai desert where the people Israel, after having been freed from the Egyptians, experienced a covenant relationship with God.  In fact, the journey from Egypt to the “promised land” was known as the Exodus, a saving event by God for the people Israel.  But during that journey there were many opportunities for Israel to dis-establish and re-establish the covenant relationship.  Hence, in the Gospel reading, the “desert” becomes the locale for people to be tested regarding their acceptance of the “coming” Jesus.

Secondly, “saving water.”  During Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, they were able to avoid the pursuing Egyptians when the waters of the sea opened up for them, and closed for the Egyptians.  Thus, the parting of the sea became for Israel a great manifestation of God’s love for his people.  In the Gospel reading, “baptism” is viewed as the saving water.

For John, penance (the Greek ‘metanoia’  means a turning around of moral behavior) is necessary before baptism.  When John speaks of  Jesus’ baptism, it will include the Holy Spirit.  The word ” spirit” (pneuma in Greek, ruah in Hebrew) can also mean the “creative power of God.”  Most likely, we can say that  John’s baptism had to do with the past (repentance before  baptism) and Jesus’ baptism had to do with the present  and the future.  By that I mean that John’s baptism demands penance before the “saving water” of baptism.  Jesus’ baptism includes the “creative power of God” which keeps on functioning.

What can we learn from the above Gospel reading?  Above all, we can appreciate John the Baptist as a good model forAdvent as a way of   preparing for the coming of Christ.  The “desert” can be for us a place of self evaluation.  Sufferings and the like will be excellent means of preparation.  Penance, if necessary.  We can also reflect on the importance of our own baptism.  What has it done for me?  Better yet.  What can it do for me?  Let me count the ways….  Taking into account the “desert” and “saving water” themes, and making them functional for Advent, then, like John, I can be  the voice of one crying in the desert.  Even though no one wants to listen.

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