Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28.
One of my favorite passages from Isaiah occurs in today’s readings. It seems to have been especially significant for Christ as well since we see Him read it to His hometown synagogue in Luke’s gospel. (I have to admit that another reason I like this passage is that I fondly recall playing what I think is Matt Maher’s best composition, Isaiah 61.) Today, the voice of the Anointed One is spoken (announced, as it were) by Isaiah while John the Baptist likewise cries out in the desert, also announcing Christ, and also quoting Isaiah. This third Sunday in Advent marks a great intersection of prophecy, the fulfillment of the Time of Promises, and the announcement of the Incarnation in our midst.
The Messiah’s words of self-announcement through the mouth of Isaiah are so poetic. For me, perhaps their most lovely attribute is that they give glory to God the Father with every line, while still revealing the role and personhood of the Messiah. He begins with “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me,” and we see the Blessed Trinity in full display. He speaks of the action of the Holy Spirit, resting upon him, sent by the Father as a way to anoint the Son. This is the fundamental relationship of the Three Persons as we understand it. The Father is the creative force, the genius of Creation, who sends the Spirit to grace, bless, and anoint in the created universe. The Son is the full recipient of the Father’s Spirit and Love, the promised Anointed One sent to do His will as none other in history can. As we read the rest of the opening sentence, we receive a condensed nugget of the Christian mystery of faith: “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.” Christ’s redemptive power, the Good News, the healing, the freeing from enslavement to sin, and the victory over death are all here prophesied. Amazing!
This is the sentence that Jesus reads in the synagogue at Nazareth when He starts his ministry, just after resisting the Devil’s temptations in the desert (Luke 4:16-19). We can marvel at the layers of revelation in the Word of God speaking through Isaiah nearly 800 years before Christ will quote his prophecy in the Nazorean synagogue. The Word, now incarnate, speaks the very words He delivered to Isaiah so long before. Why does He reveal Himself in this way? One reason is that God sows in the heart of humanity a longing for deliverance, a desire to know Him that grows over time and is not only appropriate for the dignity of the Son of God but makes humanity more receptive to His message. Another reason that becomes apparent is that there is an inherent humility to the coming of the Lord — first as a fragile baby born in an animal stall, and even in his revelation of Himself in this way. Let’s remind ourselves of what St. Luke writes after Jesus reads this verse from Isaiah: “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (Lk 4:20-22a). Jesus sits! And instead of proclaiming “It’s me! I am the Anointed One!” He says that this illustrious prophecy has been fulfilled in their presence. There’s no doubt about what He’s saying, but He couldn’t have chosen a more meek and humble way to say it. It’s important to note that Christ is not only lending legitimacy to Himself here — He is blessing the entire past tradition and Time of Prophecies. His divine majesty radiates in all directions, past, present, and future, from this moment of His Reign beginning on earth. Imagine if the prophecy was never fulfilled: it would cast doubt on not only the beloved prophets but God’s fidelity to his people; perhaps even God’s existence. Christ’s coming attests to God in every way, blessing the entire stream of salvation history. He truly is — by His very existence — a day of vindication by our God. And for one brief moment, before they recall that He is Joseph’s son and their human instinct of skepticism takes over, the entire synagogue recognizes Him as the Anointed One: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Even here, in the episode that teaches us much about humanity’s inability to discern truth in front of them, we see that creation cannot help but recognize the incredible, humble and gracious majesty in front of them.
Jesus Christ Himself, fully human and part of creation, also rejoices in the Incarnation:
I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
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 gracious way of rejoicing is simply a pleasure to read and contemplate. May we all say the words, “in my God is the joy of my soul”! The image of the Father clothing His Son in a “robe of salvation” is beautiful on its own, and takes on a heart-wrenching quality when we recall the robe and crown of thorns the soldiers put on Him during His Passion. The other lines evoke the pure beauty of a bride and groom on their wedding day and the life-affirming nature of an abundant garden as they contemplate the Kingdom of Heaven that is here. For what else is the promise of ultimate justice for humanity and never-ending praise for God but the Kingdom of Heaven? All of this spoken without boasting and with continual deference to the Father, from whom all these blessings flow.
When we study the gospels, we discover that Christ’s entire ministry is a deliberate and methodical revelation of His prophesied divinity and Incarnation to His followers. This simple point is so important for Jesus to make because 1) it shows the overabundant generosity of the Father, 2) it must be insisted upon because of its sheer uniqueness and miraculous nature in the history of the universe, and 3) it’s impossible to understand the redemptive quality of Christ’s sacrifice and Resurrection unless we recognize that He is, in fact, God’s Son, the promised Anointed One who perfects the Old Covenant and offers saving grace from the nation of Israel to the rest of humanity.
And thus John the Baptist occupies this seminal pivot point between the Old Covenant and the New, proclaiming that the Son of God has finally come to earth. We’ve grown up knowing that this was his message, and he sort-of disappears in the wake of Christ’s great ascendency. I think he might be slightly dismissed as an interesting side note in our contemplation of our faith. But let’s consider how important this final prophet is (and recall our reflection on Thursday when Jesus said John is, in fact, the greatest of Jewish prophets, Elijah, come back as promised). The evangelists give him pride of place at the beginning of the gospels; St. John in today’s gospel states, “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” John the evangelist is matter-of-fact here: John the Baptist was sent from God to testify to the light, that is, to testify that the Christ has actually come and graced the earth with His Presence. Note that the evangelist states that the reason the Baptist does this is “so that all might believe through him.” This statement carries many layers of meaning. We begin to appreciate the importance the Jewish faith placed on prophets and their role in speaking the truth — prophets ratify, in a way, the will of God on earth. We see this throughout the old testament when the kings and judges would summon the great prophets of the age to help them interpret God’s will in events as they unfold. God Himself establishes this co-leadership of prophets among the Chosen People as He appoints Aaron, Moses’ brother, as his prophet (Exodus 7:1). Also present in the evangelist’s words is the knowledge that as the one announcing the arrival of the Messiah, the Baptist is the last of the prophets, the fulfillment of what they had promised, and this is another way people can believe in Christ “through him.”
Properly stated, a prophet is someone who speaks for God to His People (cf. Amos 3:8; Jer. 1:7,17; Ezek. 3:4). The original Hebrew נָבִיא (nabi) is a cognate of Akkadian verb nabu = “to call” and Arabic naba’a = “to announce.” We see this shared meaning of “calling out” very clearly in John the Baptist. He defines his entire existence as simply that: crying out in the wilderness. He is nothing but a voice, God’s mouthpiece in the world, with a simple message. The way he proclaims this to the priests sent to question him again sheds light on the layered mystery of revelation in God’s plan: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” Like Jesus, John identifies himself through the words of Isaiah. Unlike Jesus’s meek appearance when He sits in the synagogue to share this revelation, John is wild in appearance, unabashedly baptizing all who will come, loud in his proclamations. He is the living voice of God’s Word in a different way than Christ (who is actually God). The grammar of his statement to the priests attests to this, the small “I am” before Isaiah’s prophesy echoes the great I AM of God Himself to Moses. Rather than “I AM who I AM,” John places his entire being, his “I am,” in Isaiah’s prophecy to be the voice crying out in the wilderness. This matches the wildness of his character; his entire being is truly a voice crying out in the wilderness. We can appreciate his abandonment to his prophetic appointment from God as we consider the readings of the past week that remind us to encounter the passionate love of God with an equally passionate seizing of God into our beings, violently pushing aside our worldly attachments and roadblocks. John refuses any other definition for himself. He tells them that he is not the Christ, not the Prophet, not Elijah — he refuses to be distracted by considerations of his own personhood because he has given himself completely to the task before him, to be the voice crying out in the desert, “make straight the way of the Lord!”
So, let us thank St. John the Baptist for his indefatigable demonstration of faith in God and his reminder that we must always be in the process of making straight the way for the Lord. As much as Jesus’s teachings perfect us, this remains the initial Christian call: prepare your heart, level the mountains and valleys it contains to make a straight path for Christ to come in and transform it. We must not only recall and thank St. John the Baptist, but we must imagine him here before us in his camel hair shirt, up to his calves in the Jordan, offering us a handful of blessing water as he repeats, make straight the way of the Lord. We can never tire of hearing it, never think we’re above the raw wildness of his character and call, because if there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s obscuring that way for the Lord with our own desires and thoughts of ourselves.