Lectionary commentary: first Sunday of Advent, year A
Father Joseph O'Hanlon provides his commentary for our readings at Mass yesterday, for the first Sunday of Advent.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah 2:1-5
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 122:1-2. 4-5. 6-9. R/. cf. v.1
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans 13:11-14
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 24:37-44
The New Testament opens with four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It would be misleading to assume that these four books are the earliest Christian writings. The authentic letters of St. Paul were the first written documents that we have inherited from the earliest days of the Christian story.1 Indeed, the Gospels are nearer the last of the New Testament to be written than the first.
No manuscript exists that indicates when our Gospels were written, nor where they were written, nor, indeed, who wrote them. There is general agreement that Matthew’s Gospel was most likely written in the 80s or 90s of the first century A.D. If Jesus died in 29 A.D. - a likely but not certain date - then Matthew’s Gospel appeared some sixty to seventy years later. It is generally believed that Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a major source. Most of St. Mark’s text can be found almost word for work throughout Matthew. Mark’s Gospel, probably written in Rome, emerged sometime in the sixties or early seventies and provided both Matthew and Luke with an abundance of material they harvested from traditions they found elsewhere.
A document called the Didache (the Teaching of the Lord given to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles is its full title) comes from the first century of the Christian era. It is a catechetical work, intended to be a manual to teach a community in Syria to become disciples of Jesus. There are many words and phrases in the Didache that are found in Matthew’s Gospel. Some writers suspect that the Didache was written before Matthew; others reverse the order. Whatever is the truth of the matter, both are from the first century and both reflect a way of living Christian faith in a particular part of the newly-born Christian witness to God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
The ‘where’ question is especially important. We must not assume that all understanding and teaching concerning Jesus was as extensive or as uniform as a modern catechism. None of the documents of the New Testament expound the full teaching of all that we know of the riches that come to us from God through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Chosen One. Where each Gospel was written very likely reflects the faith as understood there and the problems and controversies that engaged the concern of those who had oversight and teaching responsibilities there.
However, we cannot be sure about where Mathew was written. Of the six or seven places of origin suggested by scholars, one thing is certain. Matthew’s Gospel is an eastern text. The majority opinion is that it comes from Syria and, almost certainly, from the city of Antioch on the banks of the Orontes River. This is the city that can boast of having St. Ignatius as bishop sometime in the second century and in his letters to various churches he quotes from Matthew’s Gospel. The Didache emerged from the same city. Matthew tells us that Jesus “went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues” and adds,
So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought all the sick... and he healed them.
- Matthew 4:23-24
Now Jesus never visited Syria; indeed, he very seldom ventured outside Palestine, and even then not very far from his native soil. So why might Matthew mention Syria?
Antioch was the third most important city in the Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. The influence of the Syrian churches on Christian development is very considerable. Not only did St. Paul proclaim the gospel of God in Antioch but in that city he confronted St. Peter (opposed him face to face is the phrase used in Galatians 2:11) and such was the quarrel that Paul never again returned to that city. However Peter remained there and it is significant that he plays a more prominent rôle in Matthew’s Gospel than in any of the other Gospels.
Peter is the first to be called by Jesus (Matthew 4:18-20, the first named in the list of disciples (Matthew 10:2), the one who attempts to walk with Jesus on the water (Mathew 14:28-32), the disciple who confesses Jesus not only to be the Messiah but “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). He is one of the three disciples who accompany Jesus up the mountain of Transfiguration and, tellingly, he is the one who speaks to Jesus (Matthew 17:1-8). He is one of the three who are brought aside with Jesus to pray in Gethsemane and the one rebuked for sleeping (Matthew 26:37-40). His part in the story of the trials of Jesus leading to his crucifixion is an ignominious one but it is significant that it is his story that is chosen to be told (Matthew 26-33; 35; 58; 69-75). The prominence of Peter in a Syrian Gospel probably reflects the fact that, as Paul’s letter to Galatian Christians relates, Peter was a prominent influence in Antioch and in the Syrian churches.
Needless to say, about three or four years after the death of Jesus, Saul/Paul made his way to Damascus, the capital of Syria, to round up deviant Jews who had begun to identify themselves as Jesus people. So within a few short years there were Syrian Christians who were sufficiently confident in their new faith to convert such a learned and clever religious protagonist as Paul of Tarsus. Imagine having Paul in your RCIA group.
Who was Matthew, the writer of one of the world’s most influential books? Matthew’s Gospel has long been called “the catechism of the Church” and, though not the first to be written, soon became the first to be named in the list of the four Gospels. The name Matthew means “the gift of God”, an appropriate name for a teacher of the churches in ancient days and who to this day is the most authoritative voice in teaching the word of God.
Yet we do not know who wrote this Gospel. We have a name and the rest is shadows. As far as we know, names were attached to our Gospels in the late second century and profiles of the authors were created that simply do not measure up to the facts as we know them. We have no direct information about the composition of the Gospels for at least the first one hundred years of their existence. We do not know what were the circumstances that led to the composition of Matthew’s Gospel. The face is that all that we know with a fair degree of certainty about the author and contents of this Gospel is the Gospel itself.
A bishop of Caesarea-by-the-Sea, Eusebius (260 - 339 A.D.) associates the author with the Matthew mentioned in Matthew 9:9-13. A tax collector in the region of Capernaum, he is listed among the Twelve apostles listed in Matthew 10:1-4. But Matthew’s Gospel was not written by a close acquaintance and disciple of the Jesus who walked his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. If he personally accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry why was he obliged to plagiarise most of Mark’s Gospel? Why copy the work of a Jew who never met Jesus and who was so Romanised as bear a Roam name (Mark)? If Matthew was old enough to be a tax collector in, say, 28 A.D. when Jesus began his ministry and the Gospel was written in or around 90 A.D., what age would he be by then? Forty years of age was considered to be old in the time of Jesus.
The earliest reference to the name Matthew in association with this Gospel was made by St. Irenaeus toward the end of the second century.
Perhaps the meaning of the name Matthew might throw some light on the matter. The name, as I mentioned, means “gift of God’ and this may have been an appropriate name to attach to a Gospel that gives so many gifts to the church that first listened to its words. The name “Matthew” is very like the Greek word for “learner”, “apprentice”, “pupil”, or “disciple” (μαθητὴς, mathētēs). This word occurs 74 times in Matthew’s Gospel and confirms the author’s intention to emphasise that discipleship of Jesus must transcend all former allegiances. Certainly, the Matthew who wrote this Gospel was a very influential voice in the communities of Christians in Antioch in Syria. His Gospel is one of the riches Christianity that city gave, and continues to give, to the whole Christian world.
Questions of who, where, and when are important but they are not finally decisive as to the merits of the Gospel. What is important is to try to understand for whom and why this Gospel came to be written. Why did someone called Matthew take upon himself to instruct his brothers and sisters in Antioch in what was required of them, if they were to be true learners and proclaimers of Jesus?
As we make our way through Matthew’s Gospel in the Year of Matthew, we will discover for whom he wrote, we will meet “the little ones” for whom true disciples must care, and we will confront questions of authority. We will learn that small is beautiful. But we will learn, too, that a group as few as eleven must go to teach all nations and to baptise them into the world of God. We will meet dissension and bitterness, diverse opinions, and theological conflicts. Matthew’s Gospel is a bit—a big bit— like us.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 2:1-5:
"The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning
Judah and Jerusalem.
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.
”For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD."
The word of the LORD
There are 71 extracts of the Book of Isaiah in our Sunday Lectionary. In the complete Lectionary there are 152 readings from Isaiah. From the First Sunday of Advent to Christmas Day there are 21 readings from the prophecies of Isaiah. The importance of the Book of Isaiah in Christian understanding cannot be over-estimated. As to why he is the Advent prophet of choice must be a concern for preachers and people alike.2
Isaiah, a 300 year old prophet
Of course Isaiah did not live for 300 years. The Book of Isaiah reflects the work of the prophet himself and the continuation of that prophetic reflection by a school of dedicated disciples. These followers carried the impetus of the teaching of the prophet to new times, to new conflicts, and with new insights into the God who guided Isaiah. Today’s reading comes from Isaiah himself.
The prophet Isaiah , unlike most of the prophets, came from Jerusalem and that city was his field of ministry. He was married to a woman who was also a prophet (Isaiah 8:3). They had two or three children, one of whose names you know well. The first was called Shearjashub (meaning “a few who are left will return”, reflecting Isaiah’s belief that of the people exiled by the Assyrians would return. The second son was named Mahershal-hashbaz, which means “the spoils (of war) and the shame of it”. It refers to the shame of the defeat by the Assyrians. The names were signs of the times, a tiny kingdom over run by brutal foreign invaders. A third son is named and most scholars think his parents were Isaiah and his prophet wife. He was called Immanuel whose name means “God is with us”. The name reflects the hope that one day all would be well. It is, of course, a name given by the angel to Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
Isaiah lived through the reigns of four kings of the small kingdom of Judah (Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and the brilliantly efficient Hezekiah. Their reigns cover from 740 B.C. to 701 B.C. Isaiah was their counsellor.
Scholarship has identified three distinct books within what Old and New Testament writers regard as one book and attribute all of it to Isaiah. But it is evident that each reflects different historical times with different concerns and, as we read from the Book of Isaiah in Advent and Christmas, we need to have some awareness of the times from which each part of the book emerges.
The first section, from which comes our first reading, chapters 1 to 39, is concerned with the eight-century B. C. Assyrian domination. You may recall the first lines of Lord Byron’s poem:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.3
In those troubled times, Isaiah argued for trust in God and for the avoidance of any alliance with neighbouring powers (notably with Egypt) in an attempt to defeat the Assyrian wolf.
But King Ahaz had little faith in God and less in the advice of Isaiah: Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint. (Isaiah 7:4). When Ahaz closes his ears to wise advice, Isaiah, the prophet of God, challenges him with the sign of the child: Immanuel, a sign that will concern us on the Fourth Sunday of Advent.4
In the face of defeat and slaughter, exile and oblivion, Isaiah’s faith in God always issued in visions of hope and deliverance. Judah and its Holy City would not disappear from the map of the world. In fact, the world will come there to learn the ways of the LORD and to acknowledge God’s benign authority over the nations. There will be a wondrous time, a time of repentance such as the world has never known:
… they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
We are still waiting in hope and in prayer.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 122:1-2. 4-5. 6-9. R/. cf. v.1
A SONG OF ASCENTS.
R/. I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the LORD!"
Our feet have been standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem!
Jerusalem— built as a city
that is bound firmly together. R/.
It is there to which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
There thrones for judgment were set,
the thrones of the house of David. R/.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
“May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!” R/.
For my brothers and companions,
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good. R/.
The inscription at the head of this psalm suggests that it is a psalm sung by pilgrims making their way up to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. Clearly it is not a psalm for private pilgrimage but is the song of a band of worshippers making their way to the Presence of the LORD God in the house of the LORD.
Expectation grows as the prayerful procession passes through the gates. Pride swells as the people up from the country wonder at the city to which all God’s people desire to come to pray to their God. The very walls of the city seem to promise that God guards not only those within but also all who come in pilgrimage.
Within this city of established by King David and the home of the kings ever after are the thrones of judgement. The first throne within is God’s throne from which the LORD God governs his people with justice. Not human justice. Rather it is that unique justice by which God alone rules. It is the justice of love, a justice streaming in forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. It is a justice whose first concern is the poor and all who suffer from human injustices of every kind.
That is why the psalm speaks of thrones. For the throne of the king, the throne of the house of David, (his descendants), in Jerusalem was intended to rule as God rules. Peace and security are meant to flow from the human throne as these blessing flow from God’s throne. The poet insists on shalom and that word, meaning “peace”, is echoed in the very name of the city: Jeru-shalem, Jeru-shalom. The pilgrims, perhaps in hope more than in confidence, pray that the people’s rulers govern in ways that ensure that peace, perfect peace. A prayer, then, for all who have such hopes.
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 13:11-14
"... You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ..." The word of the LORD.
There’s a story about this short passage from St. Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome. The famous North African St. Augustine in his Confessions tells that he heard a young child singing what sounded like a catchy song:
Take, and read,
Take and read!
Immediately he returned to the copy of Paul’s letter that he had been reading and he records,
I snatched it up, opened it and in silence read the passage upon which my eyes fell. I had no wish to read any further, and no need. For in that instant, with the very ending of the sentence, it was as though a light of utter confidence shone in all my heart, and all the darkness of uncertainty vanished away.5
The passage he read was 13:13-14, the concluding sentences of today’s reading. The effect was that Augustine divested himself of his rather dissolute life and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”. No more orgies, no more drunkenness, no more promiscuity and licentiousness, a good-bye to quarrelling and jealousy—all are abandoned as he casts off the workds of darkness and puts on the armour of light.
What Augustine was determined to do was to follow Paul’s good counsel and abandon the works of darkness for the works of light:
"Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." - Romans 6:12-14
The alternatives of darkness and light poetically contrast sin and grace, death and life, evil and good, the ways of the world and the ways of God.
It is an appropriate reading for the opening day of Advent. For we must come to worship the child to be born with clean heads and clean hearts. When we come to worship Immanuel (God-with-Us), he will issue an invitation to go and tell the story.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 24:37-44
"Jesus said to his disciples,
As it was in the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
The Gospel of the LORD.
The word “advent” means “arrival”. Beware lest the first arrival of Immanuel slips past unnoticed and unsung. There are so many things to be done to prepare for Christmas, some many calls on our time, so much to remember, and so many concerns to attend to. It is so easy to reach the Day of the Arrival that, when it comes, we forget to remember.
Days of flood are more with us these climate change days. We may not be so unaware as the folk in Noah’s story. But our preparations for remembering the Advent of the Son of Man should not be so worldly that we miss the call of heaven. Knowing that everyday we celebrate living in the Presence of Immanuel, we should ready ourselves to remember where and when we were invited in.
1. Some scholars regard the Letter of James to be the earliest of all the writings in our New Testament and there is much to be said for that view. Mot however, regard St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians as the earliest.
2. As a matter of interest, the New Testament writers most frequently quote from Isaiah, the Book of Psalms, and the Book of Deuteronomy.
3. Lord George Byron, the Destruction of Sennacherib.
4. Isaiah 7:10-14, the reading in question, occurs again on the December 20.
5. St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 8:12.