Saturday, December 13, 2008

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
Sunday, 14 December, 2008

Advent III: Gaudete Sunday
Although the penitential character of Advent has not quite disappeared, it is no longer generally regarded as a “little Lent”. In some ways this is a pity, for it is a good principle that we should prepare for the joy of a feast by self-examination and restraint, and putting away the festive airs and indulgences. I suspect that a more serious Advent might be a more pointed contrast and corrective to the anticipation of Christmas festivity that now marks all of December in Western culture. This appears to be a minority opinion, however, and I only raise it because the old name for this Sunday marked it as a relief from the sombreness, just as Mothering Sunday does at Mid-Lent. In the good old days (or bad, depending on your point of view) it was only on Advent III that the organ was played and flowers decorated the altar and rose-coloured vestments could be worn.
The name Gaudete comes from the Introit for the day in the old Missal, whose Antiphon is Philippians 4.4, Rejoice in the Lord always (Gaudete in Domino semper). That epistle was also read this Sunday, which is possibly why it was chosen for the Introit. For some reason the reading seem to have been bumped to the next Sunday in early English uses, a practice which was carried over into the Book of Common Prayer. In the revised liturgy, Philippians 4 is read only in one year of the cycle, but other passages are read in other years which urge Christians to rejoice, as in this Year B the reading from 1 Thessalonians begins with the words “Rejoice always!”

Although the traditional theme of this Sunday is Joy, the Sentence — or Alleluia verse—taken from the first reading proclaims the sending of the Messiah or Christ (both words mean the Anointed One) to declare God’s favour and salvation to the poor, his comfort to those who mourn. If we think about this for a moment, it should be clear that it is because of this good news that we rejoice, and Joy is truly the theme of this Sunday.

The Collect, in its prayer that things that hinder our love of God may be removed from us, calls us to self-examination; for individuals are hindered in loving God in different ways, and to make this prayer their own must be aware of their own situation. Two points are noted below where the readings today suggest further interpretations and applications of this prayer in our Christian life.
The Readings
I am happy to welcome new readers of this blog from the Church of St Columba and All Hallows in East York. where I have the honour to be Interim Priest in Charge. This is a good occasion to mention Chris Haslem’s Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary from the Diocese of Montreal, which has such excellent comments on the readings that I do not need to repeat them here. I hope that you will consult these RCL notes; a link can be found on the left hand side of this page.
The first readings, Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, is a consolation of the people who have returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. Compare it to the Servant Songs of chapters 42-53 or Isaiah, and in particular of 50.4-11. The passage, especially the two opening verses, has particular importance for Christians because it was this passage which Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth and declared that in his ministry the prophecy found fulfillment.
Note the joy with which this passage ends, as the prophet recognizes the good things God has done. Verse 10 my sould shall exult in my God can easily be read as a prophecy of the joy with which our Lady was filled (the Magnificat, Luke 1.47-55).
Psalm 126 also comes from the time of the return from Babylon. This deliverance was beyond belief (“we were like them that dream”); but as life returned to normal it seemed to be hard and disappointing, Then the people cried to the Lord to restore their fortunes, and the psalm ends on a note of hope, confidence, and joy.
We may note that the Negev is the desert to the south of the land of Israel. The “watercourses” are the riverbeds which only flow with water after the seasonal rain. This is a symbol of our souls, which without the grace of God are dry and lifeless. God’s grace is an ever-flowing spring (see John 4.14), but it is within our power to turn away from the source or even damn up our lives so that his grace is hindered. This is a point where we might remember the collect for the day, and the things that hinder out love of God.

1 Thessalonians 5.16-24. The final chapter of 1 Thessalonians is very good to read in Advent St Paul has been explaining the sort of people Christians ought to be as they await the coming of the Lord Jesus, just as we ought to consider every year what kind of people we should be as we prepare to celebrate his coming and birth. The last thing the Apostle speaks of is the spiritual life. We are to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in everything” because this is what God wants for us in Christ.
We do not have space for more than a brief comment on joy. Just as in Christian language, Love is not the emotion but a way of acting towards others regardless of how we feel (“a policy”, as Madeleine L’Engle put it), Joy is not simply feelings of happiness or delight, but is more deeply-rooted in the knowledge of God and doing God’s will (see John 15.10-11). Indeed, joy might be something new and strange, so that one has to learn to recognize it. To take the first steps in knowing Joy one must turn to God in prayer, and study his teachings, especially the words of Jesus, and try to carry them out in your daily life. Then our souls will be refreshed like the watercourses of the south when the spring rains come.

John 1.6-8, 19-29. This is the Gospel reading in the Prayer Book for Advent IV. It is also known to those who love classic English church music from that wonderful anthem by Orlando Gibbons, This is the Record of John.
As we heard last Sunday, the preaching of John the Baptist and his call to a baptism of repentance had stirred up the whole countryside. St Luke informs us that “all questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ”. The religious authorities at Jerusalem (whom St John calls “the Jews”, v. 19) sent to inquire into John’s ministry. We must not assume that this inquiry was malicious: it was the responsibility of the council to investigate purported prophets and judge whether they were true or false.
When John denied that he was the Messiah, they asked whom he claimed to be. The coming of Elijah before the Day of the Lord was foretold in the third chapter of Malachi, while Deuteronomy 18 spoke of the coming a prophet like Moses. People later affirmed that Jesus was this prophet (John 6.14, 7.40). At John’s further denial, they asked who he said he was, and he replied in the words from Isaiah quoted in all the Gospels, “I am the voice crying in the wilderness”. John 3:26-30 should be read along with this passage.
Here we see one important lesson to learn from John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Lord. It is that John points away from himself and towards Christ. Like John the Baptist, the Church and its members must learn to say, we ourselves are nothing, we only matter if we point you to Jesus. As we pray that God will remove from us the things that hinder love of him, let us remember that when we do not keep God’s commandments, we may easily hinder the love of other people for God.


Felicity Pickup said...

Hmmm, all very useful and thought-provoking.

William Craig said...

Thank you for the comments you make from time to time, Felicity; a sign that not only is someone reading this stuff, but it is of some small use is really quite gratifying.