As you may know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but in my humble opinion, today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of it. So let me say a few words about the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
We all know the outline of the story of John the Baptist’s judicial murder, either from the Bible or from the movies or from the opera by Richard Strauss. But I bet that there are some pertinent details that you don’t know. I’ll start with some history that sets the scene for today’s Gospel reading. The prophet John the Baptist, while in his early 30s, reprimands Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, because he had married his half-brother’s ex-wife. (Oh, and did I mention she was also his niece?) Under Jewish law, the marriage was both adulterous and incestuous. As I mentioned last week, the main purpose of a prophet is to call the people back to a right relationship with God and with one another. And that is just what John does, publicly denouncing Herod’s marriage as an offence against God and demanding that it be annulled. Herod has no desire to repent, and he arrests John to shut him up. But he is reluctant to go so far as to execute the pestilent prophet. Perhaps he is afraid to kill a holy man, or perhaps he is just afraid that John’s disciples will riot
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice. This Sunday’s readings are noticeably less gloomy than the readings for the other Sundays of Advent—not a single mention of hellfire or the gnashing of teeth in the Outer Darkness. You will notice that the candle for today on the Advent wreath is rose-colored, not violet. And some parishes mark the semi-festive tone of the day by using rose-colored vestments and paraments. In my humble opinion, rose is just a fancy way of saying pink, and I don’t wear pink! But as you are probably not interested in my color preferences, let’s just move on and take a look-see at these “less gloomy” readings.
The first reading from Isaiah has virtually no hints of gloom at all—just one brief reference to “the day of vengeance of our God”! This oracle is from the third section of the book of Isaiah and dates to the time of the restoration of Jerusalem, after the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon. If you read in between the lines of this prophecy, you see that things were not as they should be. The prophet is commissioned by God to announce “good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In other words, the people were suffering. But this situation, we are told, will not last forever! “The Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up.” And on that day, the prophet will “greatly rejoice in the Lord.”
Last Sunday, I visited my mother in Salinas, and I got the chance to spend some time with the children of my niece and of my two nephews. Sometimes, the little kiddies played nicely together, and sometimes, they did not. (I’ll spare you the sordid details!) Well, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus compares the unresponsive leaders of Israel to squabbling little children who won’t play nicely together. Some want to play the “wedding game” and dance to the piping of a flute; others want to play the “funeral game” and wail. The result of their squabbling is that they don’t play any game at all!
John the Baptist came to call the people to fast and repent, and the elite of Israel were largely disapproving. They didn’t like that game! And they accused John of being crazy. Jesus came to call the people to rejoice at the wedding banquet of the Messiah. But many refused to RSVP to the party. They didn’t like that game any more than the first! And they accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard. The moral of the story is that sometimes you just can’t win.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice. This Sunday’s readings are noticeably less gloomy than the readings for the other Sundays of Advent. And some parishes mark the semi-festive tone of the day by using rose-colored vestments and paraments, instead of violet ones. (But in my humble opinion, rose is just a fancy way of saying pink, and I refuse to wear pink!) But as you are probably not terribly interested in my color preferences, let’s just move on and take a look-see at those “less gloomy” readings.
Isaiah by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel
The first reading from Isaiah really has no hints of gloom at all. It prophesies the return of the people to Zion in the midst of a sweeping transformation almost beyond imagining. Isaiah prophesies that those who are marginalized due to disabilities will be healed and reincorporated into society. And not only will the people be transformed, even the wilderness through which they pass will become a luxuriant garden. Finally, we are told, that “they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” What a fitting reading for Rejoice Sunday!
The context of the original prophecy was the Babylonian Exile, which was to last some 70 years. The prophet wrote this inspired poem to give hope to a captive people as they awaited the day of their return. And return they did, but the blind and the lame and the deaf and the mute were not restored to wholeness, and the wilderness was not transformed into a new Eden. The prophecy was fulfilled only in part, it seems. Christian scripture hints that there is another, deeper fulfilment of this prophecy yet to occur. We find references to this in the Gospel reading from Matthew. It implies that the complete fulfillment of this prophecy will come only at the consummation of the Kingdom of God, which began to break into this world with the first coming of the Messiah and will reach its fullness only at his second coming.
As you know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News, as is the reading from the Old Testament. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of Good News. So let me say a few words about the First Reading and the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
The story from 2 Samuel is the story of a problematic procession, of a liturgy gone wrong. However, due to the editing of the authors of our lectionary, you would be hard-pressed to know that! They have removed two paragraphs that change the entire meaning of this excerpt from King David’s bio. The first deleted paragraph explains how the procession went to Hell in a handbasket when the ark of the covenant began to fall out of the cart. Uzzah, one of two brothers from a priestly family who had been tasked with leading the procession, notices that the ark of God is slipping. Without thinking, he reaches his hand out to push the ark back in place. And he is struck dead for his efforts. The implication is that God was angry at the man for having touched the ark with his bare hands, something that was taboo. I don’t think that Uzzah’s death was fair. And King David didn’t think that it was fair. The Bible tells us that David was angry at God for killing Uzzah, and consequently, ruining his great procession. But David is not just angry, he is also fearful. So the procession of the ark stops for three months to see if God is going to kill anyone else. When David is finally satisfied that it is safe, the procession proceeds.
But there is yet another problem at the conclusion of the procession, a serious marital dispute. We are told that King David dressed in a linen ephod, a sort of loincloth, and danced ecstatically with all his might before God, and before a crowd of many thousands. His wife, Michal, objected. Given what we heard in today’s highly edited account, we can’t quite figure out why Michal objected so strenuously to David’s dance, why she “despised him in her heart.” The answer comes in the second deleted paragraph. There the Bible explains that King David danced in a scanty loincloth, with no underwear, and had exposed himself to the crowd. Not surprisingly, his wife, who was the daughter of a king, was scandalized. King David’s response to her criticism was to vow never again to sleep with his wife and to condemn her to a life of childlessness. When we know the whole story, King David comes across as both vulgar and vengeful. And even God himself is portrayed as somewhat capricious. All in all, it’s a disturbing and uninspiring story.