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.
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.
See especially Rom 9-11, where the Apostle Paul develops the thought that in bringing the collection from the Gentile churches to Jerusalem, he is symbolizing the partial fulfillment of this hope, and propounds the conviction that his mission will contribute decisively to the final fulfillment, when the fullness of the Gentiles will be gathered in and all Israel will be saved (Rom 11:25-26).
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 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 points—the 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.