Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):
“Arise, Jerusalem, stand on the heights.” In the magnificent poem read this Sunday, we understand Jerusalem as representing the Church. The poem expresses the hope of the Church with all her children brought together at the word of God in order to walk safely that we may be led by the light of God’s glory. See the joy that is coming to you, promises a line just before our reading.
The book of Baruch from which the Old Testament poem is taken this Sunday is not one of the better known books of the Bible and indeed it is not to found in many Bibles. Whilst the New Testament is agreed by all Christians, the way the different books of the Old Testament are arranged says much about Christians today. The book of Baruch is a good example because it shows us how we have three Old Testaments as well as the Jewish Hebrew Bible. If your Bible is Catholic or Orthodox, then you will find Baruch after the prophet Jeremiah. In other Bibles the book is placed in a middle section known as the Apocrypha. And there are the Bibles where it does not appear at all, nor does Baruch appear in the Hebrew Bible of the Jews. These variations come about because Baruch is one of those books extant only in Greek which Catholics recognise as integral to the Old Testament. These books are known as the Apocrypha and were rejected by the Protestant reformers. The New International Version which forms the Gideon Bible found in hotel bedrooms is a good example of this shorter OT. It contains the books of the Hebrew Bible but rearranged in the same Christian order as the Catholic Bibles. That is a complex topic but I have no doubt that the longer Old Testament recognised by Catholics and Orthodox is the better one. Including the later books in the Old Testament provides a better continuity between the two Testaments.
Baruch is traditionally regarded as the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah. However, the book dates from several centuries later and the author uses the Babylonian exile as the basis of his reflections. It provides a historical setting in order to give hope to the Jews of his own time living far from the city, those known as the Diaspora. The book is something of a mixed bag. Notable is a poem in praise of wisdom which is read at the Easter Vigil. There is the lament of Jerusalem to her inhabitants exiled to Babylon. She speaks as a widow, a woman dressed in mourning clothes and grieving for her children. Salvation then follows lament with the poem that we hear this Sunday. As one commentator noted:
"This reading is a magnificent choice for this second Sunday of Advent. It matches the quotation of Isaiah 40 in the Gospel and captures the Church’s Advent stance in the thrilling words: “Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height and look toward the east.” The symbolism of salvation coming from the east like the dawn is deeply embedded in the Church’s Advent lore."
Whereas Baruch looks forward to the time of joy with salvation following lament, the psalm looks back to the joy of past deliverance. The psalm adds to this note of joy by recalling what the Lord has done for his people in the past. “What marvels the Lord has worked for us, indeed we were glad” we acclaim with the response. The psalm looks back especially to the exile in Babylon which is also the setting of Baruch. The Lord released his people from bondage in Babylon and brought them back to Jerusalem. Thus they rejoice. This psalm is one of the infrequent occasions when a whole psalm is used for the response. It is part of a group known as pilgrimage psalms. They are all short and a good way to begin praying the psalms. Yet the psalm is especially concerned with present realities: it follows the joy by speaking of those who are sowing in tears with the hope that they will sing when they reap.
The Gospel highlights these realities with the reading of the opening of the main Gospel story of Luke and introduction of John the Baptist. It is here at the opening of Jesus’ public ministry that Luke makes his formal historical declaration. Solemn it certainly is and a reminder that this is no “once upon a time” story. The life of Jesus took place at a specific time, in a specific place, in specific circumstances. His ministry was mostly as a Jew among Jews but carried out against the background of the Roman Empire under Tiberius Caesar and their clients of the Herod family. Those rulers were also tyrants so naming them is also a reminder of the harsh and oppressive conditions under which the people were living.
Then exactly as with prophets of the Old Testament, “the word of the Lord came to John”. This is followed by his location, the desert (better than wilderness). The desert is a place of great importance for Israel throughout its history. It was there between the Exodus and the arrival in the Promised Land that Israel discovered God and became his chosen people.
The quotation from Isaiah recalls a second Exodus, that of the people of Israel being called back from Babylon to Jerusalem following their exile. There are echoes here of Baruch and the psalm. There is a neat change of emphasis in the Gospel. Isaiah says the voice cries “in the desert prepare the way”, that is by the journey across it back to Jerusalem. In the Gospel the voice, John, is already in the desert proclaiming “Prepare the way of the Lord” with the call to repentance. The cry of preparing the way of the Lord will then be followed up for us next Sunday with the content of that call. Yet this recalling of the Babylonian exile as with other readings increases our hope and expectation for the coming of our Saviour.
That makes us too a people of thankfulness. The reading from Philippians in the lectionary begins incorrectly. St Paul is opening his letter with a thanksgiving and so he begins I thank my God every time I remember you…” The attitude of thankfulness is so important especially as we live with the present realities indicated in the other readings. Paul is praying for the community to be ready and prepared for the day of Christ and he is confident that the good work begun will be brought to completion. Conditions may be harsh and difficult for the Philippians as for the background to Baruch, the psalm and the Gospel. Early Christians were on the margins of society and I have said at times that we with our different values may be becoming more marginalised in our own society today. Yet in this time of Advent we can be a people of joy and hope, giving thanks for the marvels that the Lord has worked for us.
- Read more Advent reflections, here.