Joyfully hoping and waiting (Isa 35, Ps 146, and Matt 11; Advent 3C)

The readings for this coming Sunday really do go hand-in-hand. It is not always this way; for more than half the year, the First Reading, Epistle, and Gospel each go their own way, following their own independent sequential pathway of readings with little or no explicit acknowledgement of each other. Sometimes, hopefully, the Psalm will resonate with one or more of these readings. Not so, however, this Sunday—as, indeed, on each Sunday in Advent (and in Lent)—for the four readings for today were deliberately yoked together by the creators of the lectionary for this third Sunday in Advent.

The lines of connection are clear. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing”, declares the prophet (Isa 35:1–2). “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient”, advises the letter-writer (James 5:7–8). And Jesus hears the question of the disciples sent by John, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:1–2). Waiting, with patience, for the long-desired coming.

The revolutionary impact of what is being waited for is also evident. “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”, the prophet sings exultantly (Isa 35:5–6). The Psalmist sounds, too, this song of sheer joy, praising “the God of Jacob … who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry … [who] sets the prisoners free, [who] opens the eyes of the blind, [who] lifts up those who are bowed down [and] loves the righteous, [who] watches over the strangers [and] upholds the orphan and the widow” (Ps 146:5, 7–9).

And Jesus himself informs the messengers sent by John that, yes, indeed, in what he is doing “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). In the alternate psalm offered by the lectionary, the young, pregnant, trusting Mary sings out loud that “the Mighty One … has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts [and] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:49, 51–53).

Indeed, this recitation of how God acts for the good in the lives of God’s people forms the foundational claim and then a recurring leitmotif in the Lukan account of the activities of Jesus throughout Galilee (Luke 4:18–19; 6:20–26; 7:22; 9:1–2; 10:8–9; 13:30; 14:11, 13–14, 21–24; 18:14, 22–25). An exact parallel to the declaration made by Jesus at Luke 7:22 forms the central claim in the passage from Matthew (11:2–11) that the lectionary offers us this coming Sunday. This upside-down kingdom, to be brought about by the righteous-justice of God (Matt 6:33), is at the heart of what we wait for, what we hope for, what we work towards.

So the prophetic word this Sunday looks to a time when “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes” (Isa 35:6–7). This is possible because it is the Lord “who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever” (Ps 146:6).

The prophet envisages a highway, to be called “the Holy Way”, on which God’s people shall travel and not go astray, for all the familiar elements of danger will be absent. Safety is assured, for “no lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there” (Isa 35:8–9). Joy and gladness will replace sorrow and sighing (Isa 35:10). An attitude of confident hope is called for as such a time is awaited, for “as an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (James 5:10).

There is a parallel to this eruption of joy during Lent, when in traditional practice the fourth Sunday in Lent was known as Laetere Sunday—from another Latin word meaning “rejoice”, which forms the opening of the introit for that day in the Latin Mass: Laetare Jerusalem et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam (“Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you that delight in her”, Isa 66:10).

These readings are intentionally clustered together for this coming Sunday, since it is, by tradition, known as Gaudate Sunday—from the Latin word meaning “rejoice”, the opening word of the introit to the Latin Mass for this day: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete (“rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice”, Phil 4:4). It is also known as Rose Sunday, and a rose colour can replace the purple of Advent for this day.

The note of rejoicing is clear in the Psalm, as “those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God” celebrate that “the Lord will reign forever” (Ps 146:5, 10). There is rejoicing envisaged by the prophet, as “the ransomed of the Lord return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” (Isa 35:10).

It is rejoicing which permeates every phrase of the young Mary’s insightful song, as her “soul magnifies the Lord” and her “spirit rejoices in God [her] Saviour” (Luke 1:46–47). And there was joy, surely, amongst the disciples of Jesus, as they heard the powerful words that he speaks in response to the request of John’s disciples, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3). They had been privileged to be there, alongside him, as these events transpired.

In Advent, our waiting with patient hope for the coming of Jesus transforms into proleptic joy—that is, joy which is expressed in advance of the actual event, in firm confidence that what is anticipated will, indeed, come to pass. In that sense, then, this coming Sunday is already a celebration-in-advance of the joy that overcame the wise ones (Matt 2:10) and, in another account, the shepherds (Luke 2:10, 20). It is a prefiguring of the joyous celebrations of the season Christmas. Enjoy!