Father Donald Senior, CP

Dec. 17: 3rd Sunday of Advent

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Is 61:1-2, 10-11; Lk 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54; 1 Thes 5:16-24; Jn 1:6-8, 19-28.

Signs of the Spirit

In all four Gospels, John the Baptist looms large at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This ascetical prophet made a deep impression on the people of his day.  
John used the barren area of the Judean desert as the backdrop for his message. Here the Jordan River ends its long trek from the Sea of Galilee in the north and empties into the Dead Sea. This was the crossing point for the Israelites as they completed their desert sojourn and entered into the Promised Land.  

In the desert, the Israelites were forged into a people after their enslavement in Egypt and finally crossed the Jordan into their new land — setting the stage for the Baptist’s message of repentance and renewal. At a time of crisis in Israel, centuries after its beginning, with the Roman occupation a constant threat and sharp divisions among the Jewish people, John’s call to begin anew had particular force.

The Gospel for this Sunday is taken from John. He presents the Baptist undergoing an interrogation by a delegation of priests and Levites from Jerusalem — a group that the other Gospels imply John sternly criticized for their compromises.  

“Who are you,” they ask, as they also suggest a number of possibilities: the Messiah? Elijah returned? A prophet? All wrong answers. John portrays himself, in the words of Isaiah we heard in last Sunday’s reading, as “the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.” John’s role is to prepare for the Messiah, the Christ. “One is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”

The first reading for this Sunday — once again a selection from Isaiah — portrays the advent of the Messiah, the promised deliverer of Israel, as one filled with God’s own Spirit. In fact, Luke’s Gospel will present Jesus reading and preaching from this very text of Isaiah 61 as he begins his mission in the synagogue of Nazareth: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.”  

That is precisely what the Gospels present Jesus doing, bringing healing and reconciliation to his beloved people. Those are the signs of the Spirit embodied in Jesus and his mission.

The passage from Isaiah adds other imagery to describe what happens when God’s Spirit is unleashed. The prophet speaks of great joy associated with the coming of the Messiah (“I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.”). Likewise, this Spirit-filled Messiah is surrounded by beauty (“clothed ... with a robe of salvation and wrapped in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels”) and is someone who brings justice (“As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.”).

This exuberant sense of what happens when we encounter the Spirit of God, lavished on Jesus and promised to us, courses through the responsorial psalm today. The “psalm” is none other than the Magnificat, the powerful hymn of praise that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, proclaims at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel as she visits her cousin Elizabeth.  

In Luke’s exquisite account John the Baptist leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s greeting. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Mary sings. Her beautiful canticle goes on to speak of God’s mercy and care for the poor, God’s fidelity to his promises.

The Spirit of God we long for this Advent is not grim or forbidding, but dynamic and life-giving, inviting us to acclaim as in our psalm response: “My soul rejoices in my God.”


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