I: Isaiah 11:1-10
(The) second Sunday of Advent marks the shift from future eschatology to preparation for the Incarnation. This shift appears in all
the readings of this Sunday, though, as we shall see, the second readings of the second and third Sundays of Advent contain
echoes of the earlier theme.
In today’s Old Testament reading we have one of the great messianic prophecies
of Isaiah. It pictures the ideal king from the family of David. He is to be endowed
with the spirit of YHWH and with charismatic gifts.
Note the three pairs: “wisdom and understanding” are powers of intellect; “counsel
and might” denote practical ability; “knowledge and fear of the Lord” are gifts of piety.
The benefits of the king’s reign are described in idyllic terms.
This picture is much older than the messianic hope proper. It probably expresses
what each succeeding generation hoped for from its Davidic king. Yet the ideal
was never realized, and the poem was shelved for messianic fulfillment.
Christian faith naturally found its fulfillment in the coming of Jesus, and that is the
sense in which we read it in the liturgy today.
Psalm: 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17*
This psalm is remarkably similar to the prophecy we just read and suits
it admirably as a responsorial reading.
It is a prayer that the monarch (presumably, again, a king of David’s line, for much of the
prosperity of his kingdom recalls the reign of Solomon) may have used in prosperity and peace.
Again, like the Isaian prophecy, this psalm was later interpreted messianically both in Judaism and in Christianity.
Reading II: Romans 15:4-9
This is the traditional
epistle for this Sunday, and because Cranmer constructed
a new collect on the basis of this reading, Anglicans have
long called this Sunday “Bible Sunday.” Unfortunately,
this had the effect of distracting attention from the main
Advent theme of this passage.
Two things are to be noted. First, the “scriptures” and “whatever
was written in former days” refer to what we now call the Old Testament.
There was as yet no New Testament in the early church, of course; in fact, when
Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he was actually taking a hand in producing
what would later become the New Testament.
On these Advent Sundays there is, as we have seen, a particular emphasis on the
Old Testament as the book of promise. This theme is taken up in our present passage,
with its reference to hope. Paul prays that by the encouragement of the Scriptures
we might have hope.
The Old Testament is precisely the book of hope and promise.
It is an incomplete book, pointing forward to an event that had not yet taken
place, namely, the final act of God. Jew and Christian ought to be able to agree
about this. But then comes the point of divergence.
Christians believe that the
event toward which the Old Testament points has, in principle at least, already
occurred with the coming of Jesus Christ. Jews, of course, believe that the event
has not yet taken place.
The Christian belief that the promises of the Old Testament have already been
fulfilled in principle does not mean that there is no further room for hope.
Paul says that the Old Testament scriptures were written in order that Christians may still have hope.
The current theology of hope (Jürgen Moltmann and Johannes Metz) stresses that the acts of God are always such that they
contain within them the hope for more.
This pattern reproduces itself again and again throughout salvation history.
When the Christian belief that God has fulfilled his promise in the sending of
his Son Jesus Christ is kindled, it at once also raises the hope of the Second Coming.
So Christian existence, like that under the Old Testament, remains an existence geared to the future. That is why the Old Testament has not become
irrelevant now that the event to which it points has taken place.
We still read the Old Testament to orient ourselves in hope to the future, to the final event
toward which the Old Testament pointsthe consummation of the kingdom of God.
If the readings of this season are preparatory to the Incarnation, it seems a little odd that John the Baptist should figure so prominently on these Sundays.
Unlike the Old Testament prophets or the annunciation story that we shall read on the last Sunday
of Advent, the Baptist does not point toward the nativity of Jesus, but rather to his ministry, life, and death: “one
who is more powerful than I is coming after me . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”; and (in John’s account), “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
When New Testament scholars speak about the Incarnation, however, they tend to
think of it in somewhat wider terms than popular piety or even dogmatic theology does.
The Incarnation, from the biblical perspective, is the whole “Christ event,”
the total coming of the Son of God in the flesh, which includes not only his nativity
but also his whole ministry, his death, resurrection, and ascension.
In fact, most of the New Testament, aside from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke,
can proclaim the Christ event without speaking of the nativity at all. So when
the Advent season prepares for the “advent” of Christ, this is not just his nativity but rather his total coming.
The nativity is merely one way of speaking of the advent of Christ, and not the central one at that. Hence,
it is wholly appropriate that John the Baptist should figure prominently in the Advent season as a herald of the Messiah’s coming.
Reginald H. Fuller
Copyright © 1984, 2006
by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota.
rights reserved. Used by permission from Liturgical
Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321
Preaching the Lectionary:
The Word of God for the Church Today
Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Liturgical Press. 2006 (Third Edition), pp. 5-7
*Webmaster Note: Commentary on the Responsorial Psalm
is from the 1984 Revised Edition, p. 5.
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