This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Advent in Lectionary Cycle A. As is the tradition of the Church, this Sunday and next prominently feature John the Baptist. The gospel reading is the scene in which John first appears in Matthew’s gospel with his singular message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 3:2). It is the gospel in which Matthew says of John, “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” (v.3) The former passage sounds as though more Lenten in tone with the latter passage quite suited to Advent.
A new section of Matthew begins at Mt 3:1. From Jesus’ infancy we jump several decades in time. Without warning or preparation, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness preaching not (as in Mark 1:4) a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” but rather repentance, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). This is also different from Luke’s gospel in which we follow the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth and their son John (Lk 1); we are not told of the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth – hence there is no announced family relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.
Yet the structure of Matthew’s gospel points to a more key relationship between John and Jesus. The section (Mt 3:1 to 11:19) brackets a chiastic pattern that describes the parameters of the relationship that are central to Matthew’s understanding of the gospel good news.
- The content of John’s preaching is clear from the beginning: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Later when John is in prison, those words are repeated verbatim by Jesus (Mt 4:17).
- John’s announcement of the “one who is coming” (3:11) corresponds to his question in 11:3 – “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
- In Chapter 3 John is the one “on stage” whereon the reader hears the Baptist’s view of Jesus. In Chapter 11, John is offstage, Jesus is the primary voice, and the reader receives Jesus’ view of the Baptist and himself.
- This chiastic bracketing informs our reading of lays between: Jesus’ words and actions are signs that the kingdom, long promised, is indeed at hand and Jesus is that long promised Messiah.
The commentary on this Sunday’s gospel is quite detailed. There will be several days in which there are two posts – and some larger sections of the commentary will probably be left aside as they are more arcane technical details and don’t speak as clearly to the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Image credit: ‘The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist in the Desert’, ca. 1635, a painting by Massimo Stanzione -1585-1656, Public Domain