The Season of Advent and Sacred Scriptures

At the start of Advent 2022 the Church begins a new liturgical year. This entails a shift from the Gospel of Luke being the primary source of our Sunday gospels (in Cycle C) to our primary source being the Gospel of Matthew (Cycle A; the Gospel of Mark for Cycle B). You can find the upcoming Sunday readings of Advent, as follows:

First Week of Advent

In the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent this year, Jesus speaks of what will happen at “the coming of the Son of Man” (for fuller context, read all of Matt 24:26-46). He exhorts his disciples to “stay awake” and to “be prepared”, since the timing of his coming is unknown and will be unexpected. The first reading, from Isaiah 2:1-5, does not directly mention the “Son of Man” or the “Messiah,” but rather foresees the coming days when the Lord’s mountain and the Lord’s house will be raised up and established on Zion (Jerusalem), ushering in the age of justice and peace (including the well-known image of swords beaten into plowshares), when all peoples will “walk in the light of the Lord.”

Paul’s exhortations in the second reading (Rom 13:11-14) not only expand on this imagery of light and darkness, but also tell believers to wake up and conduct themselves properly, since the hour of salvation is near. Looking at the fuller literary context, one sees that this short passage is part of Paul’s extended exhortations about the ethical conduct expected of Christians (Rom 12:1–15:13). Although the details in this Sunday’s three readings are quite different, each one somehow focuses on the future, and how we should prepare for the coming Day of the Lord. Whether the “End Times” come for all of us at once (cosmic catastrophe? nuclear holocaust?) or for each of us individually (young or old? accident or disease or peaceful?), we can be assured that God is already creating a whole new order that we can look forward to in hope and in trust.

This gospel is part of the fifth discourse in Matthew (24:1-25:46), which centers on the coming of the Son of Man – and that does not necessarily imply “end times” as in end-of-the-world. The passage also is located in a section (Chapters 23-25) whose aim is pastoral care and encouragement for perseverance and also preparedness – in the everyday of life as well as for the end of life. What is common to all times is the victory of the reign of God.

Second Week of Advent

The Gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent always focus on John the Baptist. This year the two selections are from Matthew 3:1-12 and 11:2-11, respectively.

Given that John the Baptist is mentioned in quite a few other passages of Matthew’s Gospel (3:13-15; 4:12; 9:14-17; 11:12-19; 14:1-12; 16:13-14; 17:10-13; 21:23-27, 32), one might ask: Why were these two passages from chapters 3 and 11 chosen? The short answer: They both deal with John’s role in preparing for Jesus, making them particularly suited for Advent. But how?

On the 2nd Sunday of Advent each year, the Gospel reading presents the preaching of John the Baptist. Although we normally call him “the Baptist,” Matt 3:1-12 does not focus on his baptizing activity as much as on other aspects of his ministry: John as Preacher/Prophet, and John as the Forerunner to Jesus.

Contrary to today’s popular misconceptions, biblical prophets do not merely or even primarily “predict” the future. Rather they “speak on behalf of God” (Greek pro-phemi), and they do this through both their words and their actions. Thus, John not only talks like a prophet (preaching a message of repentance), but he also acts like one (as Matthew describes his clothing and diet in the desert). John not only calls all people in general to repent, but he has particularly harsh words for some of the more “religious” people, challenging them to show their repentance in their actions, to “produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (3:8), as all other biblical prophets also did.

Near the end of this reading, Matthew portrays John in a related, but slightly different role: that of a forerunner to Jesus. John is quoted as speaking about “the one who is coming after me,” who “is mightier than I” (3:11), which makes this selection especially appropriate for Advent. The strong focus on judgment, however (“the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”; 3:12), might not seem very “Christmassy” to many people. Yet it can remind us that during Advent (and all year long) Christians are not only preparing to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus from 2000 years ago, but are also preparing for the future coming of the Son of Man, the Day of the Lord, the Final Judgment, or whatever else we call the ultimate future that all the Advent readings call to our attention.

3rd Sunday in Advent

Some people are disturbed by the implications of this story from Matthew 11. Why did John the Baptist question whether Jesus was the Messiah? Wasn’t he a prophet? Hadn’t God already told John that Jesus was the one? How could he now not know what God had previously revealed to him? Or is that John well knows, but aware that his own days are coming to an end, John sends his disciples to Jesus that they may come to accept the ministry of the herald is giving way to the Ministry of One who has come.

On the 3rd Sunday of Advent this year, we read the episode in which John, already in prison, sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (11:3). Jesus does not respond directly, but simply points out that he is doing the things Isaiah mentions in describing a time (the messianic age, in Christian interpretation) when people will experience God’s glory and splendor, restoration and salvation (alluding to Isa 35:1-6, this Sunday’s first reading). It is this accent, in anticipation of its joyous fulfillment that gives focus to this celebration.

This is Guadete Sunday. The day takes its common name from the Latin word Gaudete (“Rejoice”), the first word of the introit of this day’s Mass: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete, translated as: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”  Even as Isaiah promises a future day of joy, in the second reading James encourages patience and a dedication of heart.

In either its scriptural or liturgical focus, a key point is that if both prophet and Messiah have appeared, then their joint call to repentance (recall 3:2; 4:17) must be urgently heeded – be it John’s message unremittingly austere or Jesus also preaching the joy of the kingdom (11:16–19).

4th Sunday in Advent

In the first reading for today we hear the prophecy of the first coming of the Messiah from the text of Isaiah, to which St. Paul refers in the second reading. It is good to note that King Ahaz, mentioned in the first reading, is also part of the genealogy of Jesus outlined in Matthew 1:1-17: “Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah.” (v.9).

All the readings point towards the core of the Fourth Sunday of Advent which always tells part of the story that just precedes the birth of Christ. In 2022, the gospel recounts the story of Joseph and his part of the Christmas narrative. Highlighting this account points to the lineage connecting Jesus to King David through the line of Joseph. No matter what year, the reading of the 4th Sunday set the stage for one of the Bible’s best-known passages, the story of Christmas.

The Daily Mass readings in the week before Christmas

The 4th Sunday readings also are aligned with the readings of the seven days of Advent that immediately precede Christmas.  Not only do the readings for the daily Masses just before Christmas include the beginnings of the Gospel infancy narratives (Matthew 1 on Dec. 17-18; Luke 1 on Dec. 19-24), but we again get to hear the traditional “O Antiphons,” at Mass, most familiar these days from the popular hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The “O Antiphons” are more than a thousand years old.

Curiously, the first verse of the familiar hymn is actually the last of the traditional “O Antiphons” while the other verses of the hymn:

Dec. 17 – O Sapientia / O Wisdom                                 from Evening Prayer
    Verse 2: O come, Thou Wisdom from on high            from the popular hymn

Dec. 18 – O Adonai / O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel
Verse 3: O Come, O Come, Thou Lord of might

Dec. 19 – O Radix Jesse / O Flower of Jesse’s stem
Verse 4: O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem

Dec. 20 – O Clavis David / O Key of David
Verse 5: O Come, Thou Key of David, come

Dce. 21 – O Oriens / O Radiant Dawn
Verse 6: O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high

Dec. 22 – O Rex Gentium / O King of all the nations
Verse 7: O Come, Desire of nations

Dec. 23 – O Emmanuel / O Emmanual
    Verse 1: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

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