11th December 2016
From the last verse of the first reading (Isaiah 35:1-6a,10) it seems clear that this passage is referring to the return from exile in Babylon. We have to realise the symbolic significance of the desert; we still use the word today in our language and culture for a situation or a time of apparent hopelessness – when our world seems ‘barren’ (a similar word to desert). In the history of the Jews it begins with their escape from Egypt and their difficulties for a whole generation (as the story implies) of wandering in the desert – where God through Moses has led them. The period of exile in Babylon was a similar set-back for them as a nation but with a feeling of abandonment by God. So when the return to their own land is described it is envisioned as the blossoming of the desert. After the centuries of the editing of this book of Isaiah, we can only assume that our passage originated as a word of hope (perhaps when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, with his policy of repatriation). The figurative blossoming of the desert is followed with the hope of miraculous cure for disadvantaged individuals. But then, as now for us, it is a poem of the wonderful and good things that God does and will do – an appropriate reading in preparation for celebrating the birth of Christ and all that means for us.
In the second reading (James 5:7-10) we have a letter that has not always been easily accepted as of much value. It seems to be one of those books of which there were many in those days, that was attributed to a prestigious person so as to give it more weight and authority. There are a number of men called James in the early years of Christianity, the most famous being the “brother of the Lord” (could be an actual brother of just a close relative). But the contents of the book seem to be from and for the Jewish community of the Diaspora, i.e. those living away from their ethnic homeland. The image of desert which we had in the first reading is replaced by that of farming. But the overall message is appropriate for us during advent: we must be patient but while waiting must be improving the way we live, particularly in our relationships with each other.
The gospel reading begins a new attitude in Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus (chapter 11:2-11). The public life of Jesus has been progressing successfully and miracles have been performed, but now begins a more questioning and antagonistic phase of Jesus’ life. To introduce this, John the Baptist who still has some disciples though he is imprisoned by Herod Antipas, sends his disciples, with whom he still has contact, to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. John has preached that a greater one than himself is coming and he has baptised Jesus but the revelation at that time from God saying “This is my beloved son” doesn’t seem to have registered with John according to Matthew’s gospel. In addition, in our passage Jesus doesn’t exactly reply with a straightforward acceptance of the title Messiah (the Hebrew for the Greek word Christ); it is likely that Matthew wants to leave this definite recognition for Peter, whom Matthew sees as the leader of the early Christian community. So instead Jesus says, look at the evidence of the miracles you have witnessed. The list of miracles is drawn from the Old Testament (Isaiah 29:18, 61:1 and others) but mostly from the passage we had in our first reading. Then Jesus speaks about the Baptist; when crowds went out into the desert to hear him, they didn’t find a fickle person changing his attitude according to outside pressure like a reed in the wind; and they didn’t find someone elated by the popularity they had like any court official in fine clothes. But they looked for and found a prophet – and Matthew now uses the passage used of John at the beginning of Mark’s gospel – more than a prophet, the one spoken of as my messenger making a way ahead (a quote related to Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1)