“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 3:10–18:
The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?” He said to them in reply, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.
Earlier this week, at a bible study focusing on the prophets, one of our small-group members surprised me with a comment. Noting the sometimes-harsh language about the consequences that the Israelites (and others) faced for defying the will of the Lord, she expressed her difficulty in reconciling the vision of the Lord in the Old and New Testaments. In the prophetic books especially, she remarked, God seemed more vengeful than loving, and more focused on punishment rather than forgiveness. This touched off one of the better conversations I can recall in my limited experiences of bible studies, and one has to appreciate the courage it can take even among friends to offer that kind of heterodox observation.
Still, to me it’s a matter of perspective, in both time and scope. At that point in time we were studying Isaiah, which has a time frame that is many times that of the Gospels. The Old Testament in its entirety covers at least 1500 years; the New Testament covers roughly 70 at most, and is mostly focused on perhaps 20-30 years of Jesus’ ministry and the start of the Church. Sometimes, it can be difficult to understand the larger scope in favor of the more personal focus in the New Testament.
John the Baptist is in a sense a bridge between these contexts. Consider the time in which the first prophet in perhaps two centuries emerges. The Israelites are under foreign domination, a kind of internal exile in their own land in which they must kowtow to a foreign power in order to practice their faith at all, and whose leadership has been corrupted by that necessity. Herod Antipas has followed Herod the Great in a usurpation of the kingdom of the Israelites, not serving the Lord but Caesar in Rome, in bed with idolators. It is a wretched state for God’s people, who fell from His favor through their stiff-necked refusal to align themselves to His will.
And consider what will shortly befall the Israelites, and John the Baptist himself. Within the next 40 years, the Israelites will be driven from their land for millennia, not like the shorter-lived Babylonian captivity and Assyrian exile. Their prophet will be beheaded to serve the lust of the usurper king and the vengeance of his stepdaughter. The Son of God will come with the Father’s offer of salvation and be crucified for it, betrayed by the people He came to save. The Apostles will take up the Great Commission and almost every one of them will die for it, including the two who go to the heart of the enemy to preach love and redemption, Peter and Paul.
The overarching backdrop of the New Testament seems pretty Old Testament when seen in that light, no? But even that misses the point, because the Old Testament is filled with examples of God’s love and mercy. The Old Testament gives us a vision of the Lord’s unwavering fidelity to bring His people back home to Him, through their own free will, by choosing to follow Him rather than their own material desires.
Our first reading today from Zephaniah is just one of many in the Old Testament that promises Israel a savior, and the Lord’s people redemption if they choose it:
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear. On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.
The Good News of the Gospels runs thick through the Old Testament. The salvation of Christ is foreshadowed in many ways through the prophets, right up to and including John the Baptist. So are the consequences of turning away from God, as the prophets warn. Those play out over centuries, though, while the scope of the New Testament gives us a closer and more personal look to the consequences of sin and defiance of the Lord — as well as His mercy even afterward.
Consider what John the Baptist proclaims in today’s reading. Rather than condemn everyone, John preaches that another opportunity is at hand for repentance. Put aside theft, extortion, and greed, John says, so that the Messiah will not count you as “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” It is a call to God’s people to return to holiness so that they may recognize the Christ when He comes. Today’s reading ends, “He preached good news to the people” — not woe, but the possibility for salvation, as all prophets have since the beginning.
The message of the Old and New Testaments are the same at their core. God loves His children, even if they refuse Him, and continually calls them back to renew their place in His love. It is their refusal to do so that leads them into dire consequences, but God’s fidelity never wavers. He sends His Son, the Word made flesh, to provide an eternal path to salvation and a sign that death has no dominion over those who choose to follow Him. Even as the last bastion of the Israelites was collapsing around them, the Lord left a Light for them and all who came afterward to follow back to His embrace, if they choose to see it and follow it.
All of the Old Testament is an Advent. And as we follow that Light, as imperfectly as we do, stumbling along the way, our lives are an Advent, too.
The front-page image is a detail from “St. John the Baptist Preaching,” Mattia Preti (1613-1699), now in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA.