In series B the Gospel readings are taken from the Gospel of Mark, supplemented by the Gospel of John. This is necessary because Mark’s Gospel, being the shortest, requires supplementing. Also, in the three-year cycle, John is otherwise read only on certain occasions (especially Lent and Eastertide) in series A and C.
Let us first remind ourselves of the structure of the Advent season. The theme of future eschatology—the Christian hope for the final consummation of history—dominates the concluding Sundays of the year and reaches its climax on the first Sunday of Advent.
This is one of the most familiar passages from Third Isaiah (Is 56-66). It is akin to the servant psalms of Second Isaiah (Is 40-55), for although the prophet does not explicitly call himself the servant, he describes his mission in terms of servanthood.
This passage appears to have profoundly influenced Jesus’ understanding of his own mission. Even if—which, however, is by no means certain—the sermon at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-22) is a Lucan composition, Jesus himself alluded unmistakably to this text in his answer to John (Mt 11:2-6/Lk 7:18-23), whose authenticity is beyond reasonable doubt.
The Christological interest of this text, however, would be more appropriate for the Epiphany season (a slightly different selection from Isa 61 is used in the Episcopal Church’s adaptation of the Lectionary on the third Sunday of Epiphany in series C).
Today’s caption highlights the theme of joy in face of the impending advent of God’s salvation, a theme that is reinforced by the responsorial psalm (the Magnificat and the refrain taken from its two opening words). This, it will be noted, is in accordance with the tradition of the Roman Missal, where this Sunday was known as Gaudete Sunday, from the opening word of the Introit.
In the Book of Common Prayer, this theme belonged, as generally in the medieval rites of Northern Europe, to the fourth Sunday of Advent. We might note that the Magnificat is particularly associated with Advent, Bach’s Magnificat, for instance, being frequently performed on one of the Advent Sundays.
The opening of this reading continues the theme of joy from Isaiah and the psalm (note that in the old Roman Missal this was “Gaudete” from the opening of the Introit). However, the caption underlines the second paragraph with its references to the parousia.
As we have already noted, the theme of the Second Coming is replaced after the first Sunday of Advent by that of the First Coming, but there are occasional echoes of the earlier theme on later Sundays.
Such is the genius of Advent. It refuses to contemplate the First Coming apart from the Second, or the Second apart from the First.
This Gospel reading represents an ingenious combination of two separate passages. The first paragraph is a prose comment that the evangelist inserted into the Logos hymn.
Bultmann thought that the Johannine prologue was first composed as a hymn to John the Baptist by his followers, who regarded him as the bearer of the eschatological revelation. Perhaps it was, even earlier than that, a hymn to Wisdom, successively adapted for “baptist” and for Christian use.
In any case, the evangelist’s prose insertion is clearly designed to counter a false estimate of the Baptist: he is not the light but only a witness to the light.
The same tendency ostensibly to downgrade the Baptist continues in the second paragraph of our pericope. John is here presented as entirely repudiating all messianic or quasi–messianic titles. He is neither the Christ, the prophet–Messiah, nor (contra the Synoptics) Elijah, but only the “voice” of Is 40.
This disagreement with the Synoptic interpretation should not worry us unduly. In the Synoptists’ environment, it was perfectly safe to interpret John as an Elijah redivivus. But for the Fourth Gospel, in its different situation, Elijah could well have been too high a title, suggesting that he was actually the Messiah, the immediate forerunner of Yhwh.
Perhaps John reflects an earlier state of christology than that of the Synoptists, a stage when Elijah was still preempted for Christ himself—the stage that John A. T. Robinson characterized as the view that Jesus was his own Elijah, in the sense that he was the forerunner of the apocalyptic Son of Man and was himself exalted to heaven to fulfill that role.