3rd Sunday of Advent - Year A
As with the earlier Advent Sundays, the First Reading today, Isaiah 35:1-6, 10, gives expression to the messianic hope. The main point of the passage is to reassure the exiles returning from Babylonian captivity not to be afraid of the journey they have to make across the desert. Their homecoming will be accompanied by a complete transformation of the natural world, recalling the original harmony of Eden. This lends an “ecological” aspect to the messianic hope.
But the chief reason for the choice of this passage as First Reading lies in the references towards the end concerning the opening of the eyes of the blind, the unsealing of the deaf, the leaping of the lame and the singing of the dumb.
Jesus’ response to the envoys from John the Baptist as told in the Gospel, Matt 11:2-11, picks up this description and adds a few more marvels (cleansing of lepers, raising of the dead, and the good news preached to the poor).
Language of the time
A recently published text from the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran (the so-called “Messianic Apocalypse”) uses an almost identical list of wonders to characterise the messianic age. This text coming from just a few decades before Jesus’ own time shows us that he is using language that the hearers of his time would readily understand as saying, “The messianic times are upon us”.
John’s question is really asking whether Jesus is the coming and long-awaited Messiah. Perhaps John himself was having some doubts. The way he described the future ministry of the Coming One and the way Jesus actually behaved were not entirely consistent. Jesus had not turned out to be the fiery preacher of judgment that John had proclaimed (as we may recall from last week’s Gospel).
Instead, Jesus had embarked upon a ministry of healing and of celebration of God’s mercy. Such was the context of his summons to conversion of heart.
On the other hand, John, sensing that his own ministry was coming to an end (necessarily in view of his imprisonment), may have been gently recommending to his disciples that they transfer allegiance to Jesus.
As with all good teachers he knows that it is best if they discover something for themselves. So he sends them off with a question. Jesus, again like a good teacher, does not give a simple Yes or No answer. He points to his activity and implies, “In the light of your understanding of the promises in Scripture concerning the messianic age, draw your own conclusions. If my activity is ‘messianic’, then what is that saying about who I am?”
The miracles of Jesus are not perhaps the easiest parts of the Gospel tradition to handle in preaching. How nice for the afflicted people who managed to get access to Jesus and his healing power during the brief compass of his life. But where does that leave the vast mass of the afflicted down the centuries to our own day?
Messianic age has dawned
Once again I think we confront here the “already-not yet” aspect of the onset of the Kingdom. The messianic age has dawned in the first coming of Jesus but it is by no means fully arrived. For that we have to await the second coming in the sense of the “two-ways” facing Advent hope, as I explained in the commentary for the First Sunday.
The miracles are a sign of God’s ultimate will for humankind – a kind of “beachhead” of the Kingdom to give us hope. The Christian tradition has derived from Jesus a vision of the afflicted that sees them not as people punished by God – the conventional view, all too prevalent even amongst “religious” people – but as people particularly open to be receptacles and instruments of God’s power. The same goes for the poor.
The “good news” preached to them is of a piece with the first Beatitude proclaimed by Jesus at the opening of his great Sermon (Matthew 5-7). The poor are “blessed” because God has adopted their cause and one day will see that it prevails.
Jesus’ concluding commendation of John the Baptist is unstinting. Yet “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he”.
Banquet of the kingdom
They are “greater” not necessarily in moral stature but in being privileged to be actually the ones who receive the invitation to the banquet of the Kingdom that Jesus is offering. As so often, Jesus is striving to communicate to his hearers a sense of the incredible richness to which he is calling them in God’s name.
Anyone who has a farm or cultivates a garden will agree with St. James in the 2nd Reading from his letter today (5:7–10). You can’t “push” crops or plants to grow. You just have to let them take their time. So it is with our waiting for the Lord.