ColumnsSunday’s Word

The spirit of the Lord is upon me

In the third Sunday of Advent the drama builds. We began Advent with a lament and the instruction to be watchful and alert. The following week we learned that God is a God of surprises, and we can count on that. Today, the third in the series, we begin to hear about happy outcomes.

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We may associate the first reading, from Isaiah 61, with Luke’s account of Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth, at the beginning of his public life (Luke 4:18-19). That, in fact, can be a clue for us in discerning its presence here. In itself, it seems to be the call of the anonymous prophet we have given the name Third-Isaiah. As a call, it constitutes a claim, a promise. It introduces a program to come. In the prophetic passage we learn of God’s concerns, what God rejoices in and wants from us.

Note the list: glad tidings for the poor (what might these be?); healing to the broken­hearted (how do we imagine that?); liberty to captives and prisoners (really?); a year of favor and vindication by our God. God will be vindicated. And his faithful will be vindicated in turn.

And then we have another paragraph, denoting joy and rejoicing—justice and praise before the nations, joy reminiscent of the joy of a bride, and rejoicing as with the springtime renewal of the earth.

Paul concludes his first letter to the Thessalonians with another list, striking in its simplicity. Rejoice always, pray unceasingly. Give thanks. Do not quench the Spirit or quell prophetic voices. And then comes the verse that my Scripture teacher, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, claim­ed as his favorite: Test everything. Retain the good, dump the evil.

For the Gospel reading we have left Mark behind (to rejoin us in January). Today we hear from John’s account, speaking of the Baptist. John’s Gospel begins with a hymn-like poem (1:1-18), rather than a Christmas story. And yet its theme, the Incarnation, is the theological heart of Christmas. For now, though, we focus on John the Baptist, and the few verses in the opening hymn that refer to him. The rest of the first chapter is divided into four days (which with the three of John 2:1, make up a week that evokes the creation story). Today’s reading is the first of these days.

Here we discover at the very beginning a characteristic of the antagonists in this Gospel. John calls them the “Jews,” but we notice already that they are the elites in Jerusalem. They are in the difficult position of being the leaders of the people who, under the Roman occupation, are monitored by the Roman governor and others. They have to satisfy both those above and those below them. They are wary and a bit jumpy, and we can see that in their habits of surveillance. Here they have John under observation. Later, we will learn that they tend to operate behind the scenes (“in darkness”), in contrast to Jesus’ full transparency (“in the light”).

But for now, we have the testimony of John. He is not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet to come, but simply the voice announcing the coming. It turns out that we are not yet delivering on the promise—that is yet to come. But it is coming closer. We will not be disappointed. The Word is about to become flesh and make his dwelling among us. But the Word needs a voice. And, for now, John is that voice.

For reflection: Is it true that we do not often think of Incarnation, when we think of Christmas?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of re-li—-gious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.

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