First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10 Responsorial: Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17 Second Reading: Romans 15:4-9 Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
'Not by appearance shall He judge...' by Msgr. Richard Henning
Our society likes to imagine that there are many truths, and that we can choose our truths. By contrast, the biblical tradition resoundingly asserts that Truth exists. It is not a matter of our deciding among truths or “discovering” the truth by our own lights. In the Bible, truth confronts us, confounds us, judges us. The Truth in the Bible is the very revelation of God and God’s will for humankind. It demands a response.
In the passage from Matthew, we hear something of the career of John the Baptist who announces God’s will like the prophets of old. Like those prophets, John does not speak his own opinion or operate by his own strength or will. He is, in some sense, possessed by his task of announcing God’s verdict in the world. His radical lifestyle speaks as clearly as his words of his submission to divine providence and of his fidelity to the will of the Lord.
John’s message is both wondrous news of God’s fidelity and a harsh indictment of human infidelity. While John’s preaching communicates great power, he is the mere precursor to the One Whom God has promised to the people. John announces the advent of the Lord, the establishment of God’s reign in the midst of the people. It is good news to those who hope for deliverance, but it is also a moment of decision. People must choose to recognize God’s reign, repent of their sins, and welcome the One Who is coming. For those who presume upon their own power or turn away from faithful submission to God, this is a moment of terrible judgment.
The passage from the Prophet Isaiah includes the beautiful imagery of the wolf and the lamb and the calf and the lion at peace. This famous image of peace, depicted in Christian art over the centuries, is part of a larger prophecy that confronts listeners with the same intensity as the preaching of John the Baptist. Typically, when the prophets speak, they do not predict the future as much as interpret the will of God in the present. Isaiah’s imagery of remarkable, even other-worldly peace, does have an aspect of future promise. It speaks of the longing for God to redeem all creation. At the same time, the announcement of that peace follows the warning that God’s intervention brings a moment of crisis and decision. God will send a blessed figure to give hope and deliverance to those who suffer, but this same figure will bring judgment to those who have violated God’s law and used or abused the poor. The rule of God, with the promise of hope and the warning of justice carries through into the Psalm response as it praises God’s care of the poor.
The passage from Romans, found near the end of that epic letter, speaks of the importance of the scriptures in shaping Christian life. Written for instruction and to inspire hope, the scriptures mean to change us. Paul hopes that the Romans will be moved to faith by the Word – a faith that will be expressed in worship and in their living. Of course, for Paul, the line between worship and living the faith is blurred. He spoke of his own living as an “oblation,” a pouring out of his life in the service of the Lord (Phil. 2:17). He spoke in similar terms of the Christ event (Rom 8:3) and Gentile converts (Rom 15:16).
Advent is a beautiful time in so many ways. But at its heart, this looking to the coming of the Lord is an opportunity to find the endurance and encouragement of which St. Paul spoke. It is a profoundly serious thing to see and hear God in our midst.
In speaking prophetically of the Christ event, Isaiah understood that God’s intervention must lay bare the human heart with all its fear, hopes, and hidden sins. The Lord does not judge by appearances or hearsay, but confronts us with the truth. As John the Baptist knew all too well, this truth is not one dimensional. The truth of God’s presence and action in the world is often subtle and complex. It requires prayer, discernment, and listening to the word of God. People will not always accept the truth and they may even work to suppress it. Nevertheless, the truth cries out for our response. We do not find it, it finds us. And the truth that unfolds among us this Advent is not merely question of opinion, message, or instruction. It is a “two-edged sword” that offers hope and deliverance even as it confronts sin and evil. But above all, the Truth that confronts us is a Person, Jesus Christ. In Him, even judgment becomes a means to salvation. Come, Lord Jesus!