Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah and our Gospel are tightly linked, for St. Matthew, in articulating the meaning of Jesus, cites (as is his wont) an Old Testament text—namely, our reading from the eighth and ninth chapters of Isaiah. The prophet speaks of conflict in the land of Zebulon and Naphtali, and then of a great light that shines in that area, signaling the victory of God.
The entirety of this Sunday’s second reading might be seen as so much boilerplate, throwaway lines that a writer used at the commencement of his letter, something like a formal salutation. But in point of fact, almost the whole of Christianity is contained in these lines, if we have but the eyes to see. So take out your Bibles today and revisit the beginning of 1 Corinthians. It will tell you pretty much everything essential that you need to know about yourself and your mission.
I want to focus this week on the extraordinary passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah, for it reveals a central dynamic of all of biblical revelation, and indeed of the spirituality of every Christian: that the Lord’s election is not for the sake of the elect, but for the sake of the whole world.
The first sacrament one can receive in the Church, Baptism, defines our relationship with Christ. In it, we are reborn as part of his Mystical Body and gifted with the grace of God’s love. Baptism lays the foundation for every other sacrament we are to receive and inextricably links us with the Trinity.
Today’s readings for Epiphany speak of a light that shines on Israel, the chosen people, but that is meant for the whole world, a light that is a beacon summoning all the nations. And that Light is Jesus Christ himself. As the prophets predicted, this Light is the illumination of all the world, the Light to whom all seekers are destined to come.
The point of our Gospel for Holy Family Sunday is to make us see a contrast between Herod, the perfect type of the anti-family man, and Joseph, the selfless protector of Mary and Jesus. Herod’s whole existence was conditioned by and predicated upon what was good for Herod; Joseph’s whole existence and behavior are conditioned by obedience to the Word of God. Herod is out for Herod; Joseph has transcended his own ego. And this makes all the difference!
The Bible turns upside-down the way we think about the God-human relationship. In almost every other religion or philosophy, God or the gods are the powerful forces who have to be supplicated, begged, and prayed to in order for human beings to get what they want. But the Bible presents an entirely different picture. As I have often said, the Bible is not the story of our quest for God; it is the story of God’s quest for us. Both the first reading and the Gospel for this fourth Sunday of Advent make this subversion evident.
On this third Sunday of Advent, we hear for the first time this season of the great figure of John the Baptist. It’s not really possible to understand Jesus apart from his precursor. All four Gospels compel us to come to grips with John. His job is always the same: he points to Jesus. If we’re staring at John, we’re missing the point. Well, in our Gospel for today, John indicates the Lord in a most distinctive manner.
Last week, I spoke of preparing for the coming of the Lord using the great image from the second chapter of Isaiah: the Lord’s holy mountain. How do we make this mountain the highest mountain? On this second Sunday of Advent, I want to follow the Church as she invites us to look at another chapter of Isaiah—namely, the magnificent eleventh chapter, which describes the world that emerges at the coming of the Messiah.
We come once again to Advent, the beginning of the liturgical year and the great season of waiting. Christian life has a permanent Advent quality, for we are always expecting the coming of the Lord. Now, Jesus came, he will definitively come, and he is coming even now—for the risen Lord wants to take up residence in us today. So Advent is, perhaps most immediately, a preparation for that coming; we are getting ourselves ready to receive the Christ who wants, even now, to be born in us. Well, how do we do this? Our readings for this first Sunday of Advent give us some wonderful instruction.