Lectionary commentary: second Sunday of Advent, year A
Father Joseph O'Hanlon provides his commentary for our readings at Mass yesterday, for the second Sunday of Advent.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 11:1-10
Responsorial Psalm 122:1-2. 4-5. 6-9. R/. cf. v.1
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 15:4-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 3:1-12
In paragraph 1831 the Catechism of the Catholic Church informs all its readers that there are Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. It names them as follows:
- Fear of the LORD.
The Catechism helpfully supplies a footnote that directs the reader to Isaiah 11:1-2, the very two sentences that begin our first reading today. But when the careful reader turns to the Book of Isaiah to read what is written there, a surprise is in store. For the list of gifts given by the Spirit of the Lord in Isaiah is as follows:
- Might (power, fortitude)
- Fear of the Lord
There are six gifts listed in Isaiah. Seven gifts are listed in the Catechism. The gift of Piety has been added. Where does that extra gift come from? And what does it mean?
To discover where our Catechism found the extra gift we have to go back to the the days of one of the greatest military generals in history. Alexander the Great, the son of King Philip II of Macedon (northern Greece) was born in 356 B.C. Educated by Aristotle, he succeeded his father to the throne and then set out to conquer the world. He created an empire that stretched from Greece to northwest India, including such countries as Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Persia. When he died in 320 B.C. his generals carved up what their King had conquered.
Alexandria in Egypt was one of the many cities founded by Alexander and it prospered, becoming rich, powerful, and home to a lively intellectual community. Many Jews emigrated there from their tiny land and soon a prosperous ghetto developed. The Jewish inhabitants wished to share in the intellectual life of the city and to introduce their culture to the wider community. To do this they needed to translate their great literature into the lingua franca of the time, to the language of the conquering Greeks. Their greatest text was their Bible. But it was written in Hebrew, a difficult and dying language. It was decided to employ scholars from Jerusalem to come and produce a Greek translation of their holy books to display to the world the wonders of their faith, their religious culture, and the glory of their God.
The result was a translation known as the SEPTUAGINT. The word means 70, for it was believed to be the work of 70 diligent academics. It was this translation of the Hebrew Bible that became the Bible of the very first Christians. For as sooon as they moved beyond the tiny territory of Judea, our fathers and mothers in faith needed to proclaim Jesus in Greek, not Aramaic, the language of Jesus, of Peter, and James and John. Every single writer whose work came to form the 27 books that make up the Christian New Testament wrote in Greek. On the few occasions they used a Hebrew or Aramaic word, they supplied a translation. So Abba is always followed by the Greek translation Pater. In English translations you will read Abba, Father.
But what has this got to do with the six or seven gifts? The Greek translation made in Alexandria increases the six gifts to seven. The SEPTUAGINT adds Piety to the original list of six that is found in the Hebrew text of Isaiah. Why would they do such a thing? Why add to the words of Israel’s greatest prophet?
It may be that 7 is generally regarded as a lucky number and six not so lucky. After all, the six days of creation had to be capped by the seventh day, a day that was blessed and made holy. More likely, the sevenfold blessings of the Spirit were represented in the Temple in Jerusalem by lamp, the menorah. The the single golden lampstand had over time a various number of branches. But in the rebuilt Temple, and after repeated looting by invaders, the holy lampstand representing the light of God’s presence and life eternal to come had seven branches.
It may be that the translators in Alexandria wished to align the text of Isaiah with what they had experienced when they worshipped in Jerusalem before they set off to Aleaxandria to translate their holy books into the language of their conquerors.
Whatever the reason for adding to the text of Isaiah, there are lessons to be learned when we become aware of the difference between what Isaiah wrote and what the Catechism records.
Jesus was born into and grew up in a tiny country. He seldom went beyond the borders of Palestine. But those who received the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost Day grew to a realisation that who Jesus was, what the Risen Lord stood for, and what their new faith demanded, were God’s gift to the whole world. To be sure, there was a struggle to convince the first followers that what they had been commanded to proclaim was not intended solely for Jewish ears only. The whole of humanity must be gospelled with God’s story. That meant that Jesus had to be translated, not just the words; rather the very person of Jesus must be translated into the cultures of all peoples.
We do not know what language the angelic choirs employed to sing their song around the manger. But the baby laid in that manger must be known in every language and tongue, in every culture and in every time. The first Christians did not steep themselves in the Hebrew Bible. They turned to the Greek translation of that Bible and used it their holy book. But, as they did, we must know that our first duty is to translate the person of Jesus into our time and place. Not just words. But in living the life of Jesus, in being in our time what he was in his time, as filled with his Spirit of Holiness, we proclaim the son of Mary to the world. We are all in the business of translation. Actions speak louder than words.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 11:1-10
"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
And a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.In that day, the root of Jesse,
shall stand as a signal for the peoples—
of him shall the nations inquire,
and his resting place shall be glorious."
The word of the Lord.
The reading from Isaiah is a sketch of what the ideal king looks like. It hangs its hat on King David, the ancient model king. David, as history moved on, got whitewashed. David’s father was Jesse (see Matthew 1:6) and Isaiah imagines another such descendant of Jesse who will be filled with every good gift that the Spirit of God instils in the human heart. What Jesse’s descendant is gifted, so every human is offered. What God wishes is that every human being is moulded into righteousness, into concern for the poor, into opposing all that is wicked, in short, into creating a new world. The poet’s images still have power to instil longings in every heart:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat.
And the dream is that,
… the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
We are first called to pray and, in our praying, to imagine the future. Then the Spirit empowers us to create it. That is what proclaiming involves. We must imagine, then we must create. The gifts of the Spirit give us the vision and the strength, whether there are six or seven of them.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 72:1-2. 7-8. 12-13. 17. R/. cf. v. 7
R/. In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more.
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice. R/.
In his days may the righteous flourish,
and peace abound, till the moon be no more!
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. R/.
For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy. R/.
May his name endure forever,
his fame continue as long as the sun!
May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed.
This is a royal psalm. That is, it is one of a number of psalms celebrating kings and kingship, especially that of David and his son Solomon, regarding them as models of good kingship. There is a suggestion in its last line that Psalm 72 was written by David in honour of his son. We can expect plenty of hyperbole and fond hopes. But the prayer does sketch what a good king would be like and how such a one would exercise responsibility.
A king, filled with God’s grace, must judge people with righteousness, that is, with honesty, a concern for justice, and with particular care for the poor. Lowly people must be rescued and the oppressor overcome. Above all, what the good king does is to create peace, a peace that lasts as long as there is a moon in the sky. No matter how extensive his rule, he must save the lives of the poor. Though every king in the world bow down before him, the poor and needy must be lifted up. They must be rescued from whatever outrage besets them. A king who so acts is a king who spreads the glory of God throughout all the earth. Every nation shall bless his name.
Christians can see in this psalm a portrait of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew portrays Immanuel, God-with-Us, caring for the poor, the outcasts, the destitute, the ne’er-do-wells and the never-has-beens. Psalm 72 fits Jesus to a tee.
A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Romans, 15:4-9
"Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,and sing to your name."
The word of the Lord.
On the 8th April, 1546, the Council of Trent listed the books to be regarded as belonging to the Bible. The decree was intended to name the books held by Catholics to make up Holy Scripture. The Council named 14 books that it claimed to be written by St Paul. Hardly anyone today would defend that decision. While there is plenty of discussion to this very day, many Christian and Catholic scholars would agree that St Paul did not write the Letter to Hebrews. Many, too, would hold that there are seven letters that come from the hand of Saint Paul and six others from disciples of Paul writing after the death of the great apostle. The seven authentic letters of Paul are Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and the little letter to Philemon.
The order of all the letters in our New Testament acknowledged to be by Paul or his disciples is decided by their length, not by their importance. Hence the longest of all the letters is that to Roman Christians and it is listed first.
As it happens it is probably the most important of all the letters in the New Testament. It was his understanding of the letter to Roman Christians that led Martin Luther to break with the Catholic Church and ferment the divisions that have since defaced the our Christian witness to the world. The Catholic understanding of Romans was not much better. Thankfully, today there is much more agreement between the Churches as to what Paul was saying in that very difficult text.
Thankfully today’s reading is not one of his more difficult passages. What Paul claims is that all that comes to us in our Bible may be summed up in one word: hope. For Paul, of course, the scriptures were what we call the Old Testament. It would be better to call that library of books the Hebrew Bible. It is the Jewish Bible, the Bible that Paul and every Christian inherits from our Jewish brothers and sisters.
For Paul in the pages of the Hebrew Bible God offers hope that all we do is in accord with what God wishes of us. Following the example that Christ Jesus gives to all is to guarantee peaceful co-existence. To live together in peace is to give glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Preparing for Christmas demands listening to what it is we are called to be. Peace on earth and goodwill to all are at the heart of things. Treating others as God treats us, treating everyone as Christ Jesus did – these are the hallmarks of Christian living. By living the life Jesus lived the world will be brought to know the beauty of God.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 24:37-44
"In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'
Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
The Gospel of the Lord.
There are many remarkable challenges in today’s Gospel reading. The first, and chiefest among them, is to grasp the meaning of what John the Baptist announces:
The kingdom of heaven is at hand!
We know many sentences like this:
Come and get it!
Tea is ready!
Of course, you can ignore the invitation, and, if you do, you get no tea.
Man the lifeboats!
The ship is sinking!
If you are on the Titanic it would be disastrous to ignore the call to hasten to the lifeboats. You would, of course, have plenty of ice for your gin-and-tonic. But you would lose your life.
The point is that these examples are exactly like the call made by John the Baptist.
Fact: The kingdom of heaven is at hand!
Something has happened or is about to happen. That is a fact. There is only one appropriate response, only one sensible way to react and that is to obey the command. John is not saying something might happen. He is saying that there is a FACT and if you know what’s good for you, you will do what the fact demands. Otherwise, you will miss God’s call.
Do not underestimate the preaching of John. This is what Jesus proclaimed on his very first day in the preaching business:
The kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
- Matthew 3:17
Exactly word-for-word with what John the Baptist was inspired to proclaim. It would not be wise to ignore both. But what does it mean?
It does not mean “Be sorry for your sins”. It has nothing to do with being sorry for your sins. It is not about going to confession. It is far more demanding, far more difficult than that. It means changing every thing you know about God. It means adopting a new vision, a new version of God, a new understanding of God. It means that you must stop thinking about what you must do and concentrate on what God is doing. God is on centre stage here, not you. You must have a radical change of mind and adjust totally to new circumstances.
There is a new fact:
The kingdom of heaven is at hand!
This is the fact. It is to this fact that radical adjustment must be made. This is what God is doing and you cannot gainsay or avoid this fact. Perhaps the meaning of this fact might be more obvious if we translate it into a more modern idiom:
John and Jesus are announcing that God is about to exercise divine authority on earth. It is an authority not found in a book, not found in the words of priests and prophets, not found in the statements of kings and emperors. It is to be found in the person who comes in the name of the Lord God. To know this person is to know what God is about. To understand this person is to understand the mind of God. To listen to this person is to hear the word of god. To act as this person acts is to know what God demands that you do. To follow this person is to walk with God.
Our prayer actually provides a complete understanding:
Thy kingdom come!
Thy will be done on earth
as it is in heaven!
The kingdom of heaven is not a place, not a territory; nor is it a heaven beyond the reach of humanity. It is a condition, a state of being. It is when and where human beings (indeed, all creation) are transformed by the Presence of God. God’s kingdom is established in human hearts and minds when they are transformed into what God intends humanity to be. Jesus is the transforming power of God who defines how humanity must live in order to be what humanity is destined to become.
To follow Matthew’s story is to witness the transformation of humanity. The Sermon on the Mount (5:1 – 7:29) is the charter of a transformed humanity. Jesus embodies all that men and women must become. Parable after parable disclosed the nature of the kingdom, its moods and tenses, its transformative drive, and its eternal destiny.
Pharisees and Sadducees
Pharisees were and are a deeply religious segment of religious Jews. They had and have their own understanding of how to live according to Torah, to the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. But for a variety of reasons that will emerge as we explore the Gospel, Pharisees did not see eye-to-eye with most of what Jesus said an and did.
Sadducees were in the main the Temple priests and their supporters in Jerusalem. They were for the most part drawn from the wealthier elements in society. They were enemies of Jesus and, as we shall see in their brief appearances in the Gospel, scornfully opposed to all that Jesus stood for. The one confrontation they had with Jesus (Matthew 22:23-28) sums up their dismissive attitude to the prophet from Galilee.
John the Baptist confronts them and demands radical change of heart. But, as we learn today, neither Pharisee nor Sadducee showed much sign of repentance, no indication of that radical conversion to a new way of embracing God that John and Jesus demanded. They were unable to see the signs of the times, to appreciate that living by the old certainties was to lose out on the future glory opening up before them.
- Dr Joseph O’Hanlon