Advent’s emphasis on the finality of divine judgment for the world is deeply embedded in the Scriptures of Israel. Baruch’s prophecy (Baruch 5:1-9) stresses the joy of judgment, because God’s coming for Jerusalem both vindicates and enhances righteousness; Malachi anticipates a heavenly messenger who will announce the full purification that is to come (Malachi 3:1-4), a role assigned to John the Baptist in the Gospels. John, in fact, is the child who lies at the center of the canticle of Zechariah, which serves as today’s psalm (Luke 1:68-79). Paul’s Letter to the Philippians exemplifies how the anticipation of divine judgment in early Christian expectation focused on “the day of the Anointed Jesus” (Philippians 1:3-11), when Jesus, raised from the dead, becomes the instrument of God’s intervention. Today’s Gospel reading places John the Baptist in time, but also stresses his significance for the end of time as anticipated in the Scriptures of Israel.
The First Reading
The Vindication of Jerusalem
The book of Baruch appears in the Apocrypha, meaning that it is part of the Greek version of the Scriptures of Israel (the Septuagint) but is not found in the Hebrew Bible. It presents as though it expresses the perspective of the time of Jeremiah, and its author claimed that the book was written by Jeremiah’s scribe. The book’s author in fact wrote it after the crisis of the second century BCE, however, when foreign rulers threatened to convert the Temple in Jerusalem into a shrine to Zeus.
Jerusalem: Remove the clothing of your mourning and affliction; put on the beauty that forever comes from God’s glory. Clothe yourself with the cloak of righteousness from God; set upon your head the diadem of the Eternal’s glory. God will show your splendor to every place under heaven; your name from God will forever be called, “Righteous reconciliation, worshipful glory.”
Arise, Jerusalem: Stand on the height and look towards the east. See your children brought together from west and east by the command of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered. They went away from you on foot, led by enemies, but God will lead them back to you, carried in glory like a royal throne. God has directed every high mountain and ancient hill to be brought low, and valleys to be filled up, making the ground level so that Israel can proceed safely in God’s glory. Forests and every pleasing tree shade Israel at God’s direction. God shall personally lead Israel with joy in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from God.
or Malachi 3:1-4
God Comes with Purifying Power
In the period of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, the prophet Malachi announces the imminent appearance of God, anticipated by a heavenly messenger. When God comes, Temple worship will be restored to its proper practice and purpose.
Look! I am sending my messenger who will clear a path before me. Suddenly, the ruler whom you seek will arrive at the Temple. The messenger of the covenant, for whom you yearn—look!—he is coming, says the Lord of the heavenly divisions. Who can endure the day when he comes, and who will stand fast when he appears? For he is like a smelter’s fire and launderers’ lye. He will judge as a smelter, a purifier of silver, to purify the Levites and to refine them like gold and silver, so that they will properly bring offerings to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and of Jerusalem will please the Lord, as in ancient days and former times.
Blessing God for Present and Future Vindication
Luke’s Gospel uniquely includes a series of canticles—psalm-like poetic compositions—within its narrative of Jesus’ birth. In this case, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, celebrates John’s birth and anticipates his role in the vindication of Israel.
The Lord God of Israel is blessed, having intervened and made redemption for God’s people, and raising for us a horn of salvation in the House of David, God’s servant, just as was promised from the beginning through the mouth of God’s holy prophets:
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to do mercy with our
ancestors, and to remember the holy covenant. This is the oath that God swore to Abraham, our forefather:
to grant that we, being delivered from the hand of enemies, can without fear worship Godin proper piety and righteousness all our days. And you, child, shall be called Most High’s prophet:
because you will proceed before the Lord to prepare the Lord’s way,
to give knowledge of salvation to the people, by release of their sins,
through our God’s urgent compassion, by which the dawn from on high intervenes for us,
to shine on those in darkness and those residing in death’s shadow,
and to direct our feet into a peaceful way.
The Second Reading
Paul’s Prayer of Thankfulness for the Philippian Believers’ Partnership
In the opening of his letter to the believers in Philippi, Paul expresses in prayer his thankfulness for their partnership. Paul’s prayer captures his deep affection for the Philippians and his gratitude for their having partnered with him during his imprisonment and trial in Rome. Paul is confident that their actions will work to their advantage at the coming divine judgment in connection with “the day of the Anointed Jesus.”
I always thank my God with every remembrance of you. In every prayer for you all, I make my request with joy because of your partnership in the proclamation of God’s victory from that first day until now. I have always believed that the One who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of the Anointed Jesus. Indeed, it is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart in that you really are all partakers with me in the grace both of my imprisonment and of my defense and vindication of God’s victory proclamation. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the urgent compassion of the Anointed Jesus. I pray that your love may yet increase more and more, in full knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve that which is best, and so that you might be pure and blameless for the day of the Anointed, being filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus the Anointed to the glory and praise of God.
John the Baptist’s Appearance
In all of the Gospels, John the Baptist’s significance lies in how he prepares the way for Jesus, and so prepares the way for God’s judgment. Luke’s Gospel sets the key prophetic statement (from Isaiah 40:3), which Luke attributes to John, in a specific historical context.
In the fifteenth year of Caesar Tiberius’ government, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod regional administrator of Galilee, while Philip his brother was regional administrator of Ituraea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias regional administrator of Abilene, during Annas’ and Caiaphas’ high priesthood, God’s message came upon John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. And he came into every surrounding land of the Jordan, announcing an immersion of repentance for sins’ release. Thus it has been written in the book of the prophet Isaiah’s words: “Voice of one calling in the wilderness—Prepare the Lord’s way; make God’s paths straight. Every valley shall be filled up, and every mountain and hill brought down. And it shall be: the crooked, straight and the rough, smooth ways. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”