Second Sunday of Advent: A City in the Wilderness

At the center of our readings for the second Sunday of Advent is an image of Jerusalem.  The Entrance Antiphon says, “O people of Sion” (the temple hill at the center of Jerusalem) “behold, the Lord will come to save the nations, and the Lord will make the glory of his voice heard in the joy of your heart.”  The Communion Antiphon again says, “Jerusalem, arise and stand upon the heights, and behold the joy which comes to you from God.”  Jerusalem looks toward the Lord who will come.

The Liturgical renewal of Vatican II is remarkable, sometimes dumbfoundingly rich.  These two antiphons are ancient, and were part of the readings before the Council.  After the Council, the readings themselves changed – though the Gospel continues to bring our attention to John the Baptist – but we enter even more deeply into these antiphons.

The earthly Jerusalem is a strange city. Most cities, like New York, are near the sea and trade routes.  Jerusalem is in the mountains, desert mountains, a fortress set apart.  Jerusalem is a city in the wilderness, a watchtower.

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Our Epistle, from Second Peter, keeps us looking forward, to the Second Coming.  We are reminded that on that day, “the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.”  All that will remain is “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”  (In Revelation, that’s the New Jerusalem.)  “Therefore . . . be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him.”  Be cleansed so that you can meet your Lord when he comes.

Our Prophet, Isaiah, is more reassuring: instead of threatening the incineration of heaven and earth, he says, “Comfort”: tell Jerusalem that “her guilt is expiated.”  But still we are preparing “in the desert . . . the way of the Lord,” preparing for when “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” because “Here comes with power the Lord God.”  A watchtower.

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The Gospel is John the Baptist, whom Mark calls, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

A central line of the reading points us to the identity of Jerusalem.  I’ll give my own translation, because the point is tricky: “There came out to him the whole Judean territory and all the Jerusalemites.”

Like everything else in this reading, it is a reference to Isaiah and Elijah.  Our reading from Isaiah said, “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!  Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!”

Jerusalem, the city on a hill, is a people looking east.  The earthly Jerusalem proclaims salvation to all the nations, beginning with the Judean countryside that surrounds it.  “All of Jerusalem,” Mark says, goes out to John the Baptist.

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John himself is an image of the Old Testament people.  The reading begins, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet” – but then it quotes two of the prophets, Malachi, who says, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” and then our reading from Isaiah, “A voice of one crying out in the desert.”

Both passages have prophets telling of a prophet telling of the Lord who comes.  Jerusalem is a people looking East, a people of prophecy, a watchtower.

John the Baptist himself proclaims a baptism.  In the Greek version of the Old Testament that Mark is quoting, “baptism” is a word derived from the word for the ablutions that are center to Jerusalem’s identity.  In the Passover rite in Exodus, for example, “You shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip [bapto] in the blood in the bowl, and strike the lintel and the doorposts with the blood in the bowl.”  And on Yom Kippur, “the priest shall dip [bapto] his finger in the blood and sprinkle of the blood seven times before Jehovah, at the front of the veil of the holy place.”

But the exact word appears only, of course, in Isaiah, where baptizo is being “overwhelmed” (even in English, “whelm” literally means “submerge”) by the awesomeness of the Lord, and what Elijah’s successor Elisha tells Naaman the Syrian to do in the Jordan.

John leads the people of Jerusalem back to their roots, in the Jordan.  He wears the camel hair and belt that were the marks of Elijah and all the prophets.  He eats wild honey, recalling the promised land of milk and honey, and locusts, a food of the poor in the desert and the animal food allowed by the charter of the people in Leviticus.

John reminds the people of Jerusalem who they are: a prophetic people, a people looking east, awaiting their Lord – a people of the desert, a city in the wilderness, gathered not by trade but by the Lord who comes.

To be Jerusalem and Israel is to say, “One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” – to wash his feet, though he submerges mine.

We too are called to be that prophetic people, a people gathered together in prophecy of the day of the Lord.

How would your parish be different if it lived as a prophetic people, a city in the wilderness?

 

First Sunday in Advent: Christ’s Work in Us

“Let us see your face, and we shall be saved,” was our Psalm response this week. “Come, Lord Jesus!” is our prayer for Advent, as we prepare to celebrate for his first coming and look forward to his coming again.

Searching the Scriptures

Our Gospel sets our face toward that second coming when it says, “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming . . . .  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”  Those are the words of Jesus, who has already come, and tells us to look forward to his coming again.

So too in our first reading, from the beginning of First Corinthians: “as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  First Corinthians was written to a community already established by the revelation of Jesus Christ, else they couldn’t even use his name. But they look forward.  In fact, “He” – that is, Jesus Christ himself, who already came, and already is at work in us; “he” of whom Paul has just said, “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus” – “He will  keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Christ who has come prepares us for Christ who will come again.

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We enter into this mystery through the first reading – of course, as every Sunday in Advent, from the prophet Isaiah.  The reading begins and ends, “You, LORD, are our father.”  At the end it explains: “We are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.”  We are what we are because God makes us.  That’s why in the reading from Corinthians Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always on your account” – because of “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus.”  He makes us.

This appreciation of grace takes a startling turn when Isaiah says, “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways.”  He believes so firmly that God alone makes us righteous that he can even blame God for not making us righteous.  And so he begs, “Return.”  And so we beg, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “let us see your face and we shall be saved,” “Lord, make us turn to you.”

Isaiah begs, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” – and we beg, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “I believe that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”  Be our king!  Reign!  Make the world righteous at last!

Isaiah would like to say that we are righteously awaiting, but he cannot: “all of us have become like unclean people,” even “all our good deeds are like polluted rags. . . .  There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you,” says the Prophet who is calling on the name of the LORD, but knows he does it so poorly.

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Mary sees

Things are the same and different for St. Paul.  “In Christ Jesus,” he says, “. . . you were enriched in every way, with all logos and gnosis . . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”  Because we know him, we are enriched by him.

And so now, too, after Christ has come, we long for his coming.  And now too we know that we cannot make ourselves ready for that coming, for that reign of true righteousness.  But “God is faithful,” and so “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Before Christ, Isaiah sees nothing but polluted rags.  After Christ, Paul knows that the power already at work in us through faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ can make us holy, irreproachable as we await the perfect reign of Christ.

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In our reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Be watchful!  Be alert!”  Or “Look, and stay awake!”  Keep your eye on him, on the revelation of Christ who has come and will come again.

“It is like a man traveling abroad,” he says.  “He places his servants in charge, each with his own work.”  We each have a work to do, a way to prepare, a way that he wants to work in us as we await the revelation of his perfect kingdom.

“He orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.”  The gatekeeper is a specific work, not the work of all the servants.  And yet his work gives the ultimate meaning to all our other works.  “Watch, therefore.”  Be prepared at every moment, by living the vocation, the work that he has given you, and that he works in you.

To prepare for Christ is not to sleep, but to let him who has already come work in us.  If we are to be ready for his perfect reign, we must make sure we are not like the people in Isaiah’s time, when Christ had never come, and they were unclean and no one called on his name.  Rather we must be like St. Paul, enriched with every good gift for every good work, by our knowledge of him who has already come to begin his work in us

How is Christ trying to make you turn to him, to prepare your place in his kingdom?