3rd Sunday of Advent – Year A (December 15th)
Readings: Isaiah 35: 1-6, 10
Without vision, the people perish. Next Sunday we shall be a little over halfway through the time of Advent (or “Coming”), and the readings invite us to go deeper into the vision that animates us at this time of the year.
The first reading is directed in the first place towards the Israelites in exile in Babylon, inviting them to think that God might be recalling them home to Jerusalem (so for them “Advent” was to mean “going back where we belong”); now to get back there they had to cross a little matter of several thousand miles of inhospitable desert, and into their anxiety the poet-prophet whispers the vision of that desert coming alive: “it will exult, and the wilderness shall rejoice and bloom”. That stark and barren territory is going to look like the loveliest parts of the land from which they had been taken, half a century earlier: “the glory of the Lebanon…the splendour of Carmel and Sharon”; but that, he reminds them, is really none other than “the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God”. Then the vision goes deeper, and we hear what else is to happen, for the ritually impure are to be made clean: “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unblocked” (there is a pun in the Hebrew here that we cannot possibly put into English), “then the lame will leap like a deer, the tongue of the dumb shall exult”. Best of all, “The Lord’s ransomed ones shall return, and go into Zion singing”. There is great joy here.
The psalm is one of the great Halleluiahs with which the book of Psalms comes to an end. The vision here is a grasp of who God is, the One “who keeps faith for ever, who does justice for the oppressed, provides food for the hungry, the Lord who sets prisoners free, the Lord who gives sight to the blind…protects the immigrant, supports the orphan and the widow”. The God who is thus envisioned is a very different God.
In the second reading, the question is how Christians are to cope with the delay in Jesus’ (second) coming, which may be good for us in this Advent time. James uses the farming imagery that you might expect of a Galilee peasant, and insists that “the Coming of the Lord has drawn near…the Judge is standing at the gates”, and tells them to consider the example of the prophets; this too is a vision.
The gospel for next Sunday reveals that for the moment John the Baptist has lost sight of the vision, not surprisingly for one whom Herod has imprisoned. So he has forgotten all about that dialogue that he had held, back in the third chapter of the gospel, with Jesus at the time when John baptised Jesus (when he was saying that it was Jesus who should be baptising him), and now he is asking, “Are you the Coming One, or are we to expect another one?” Jesus replies in terms of the Hebrew vision of our first reading and the psalm: “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor are gospelled”. In other words, the vision has come true: God is indeed in our land. And Jesus adds a tail-piece, aimed at John in his prison, but we shall do well to meditate on it ourselves, “Congratulations to those who are not made to stumble by me”. It does not stop there, however, for Jesus draws the lesson about John the Baptist: John, all are agreed, was God’s messenger, but he was out there in the inhospitable desert, not in a palace, nor wearing comfortable clothes, but simply being God’s messenger, “who is to prepare your way ahead of you”. And the vision has another, slightly baffling, element to it. For, first, John is praised: “Among those born of women no one has arisen who is greater than John the Baptist”. Then, secondly, he is put in his place: “But the one who is of least significance in the Kingdom of the Heavens is greater than John”. Let us, this week, apply the vision of our readings to the Coming One who is, even now, knocking at the door.