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!

On reading scripture during Advent: starting with the end (Matt 24; Advent 1A)

Last Sunday, we drew to a close the series of readings that we have been following from “the orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us”, for our weekly Gospel passages. This orderly account, offered to a person named “lover of God” (in Greek, Theophilus), we are told, was written so that this Theophilus might “know the certainty concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1–4).

In this narrative, Jesus has been positioned as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [the] people Israel” (2:32), through whom “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6). His final words to his followers charge them with proclaiming “repentance and forgiveness of sins … to all nations” (24:47)—indeed, “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It’s the strongest biblical expression of the universal, scope of the Gospel.

Now we turn to the narrative entitled the origins of Jesus, chosen one, the son of David, the son of Abraham. This Gospel, by contrast, focuses intently on the Jewish origins of the Gospel. The opening chapters signal the Jewishness of Jesus (Matt 1:1), presents his Jewish genealogy (1:2–18), and locates him as the chosen ruler “who is to shepherd [God’s] people Israel” (2:6) and fulfil Isaiah’s words for “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” (4:16).

In this Gospel, Jesus affirms that he did not come “to abolish the law and the prophets”, but rather to fulfil them (5:17); he instructs his followers to “strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness” (6:33), is portrayed as one proclaiming justice (12:18–21), advocating what is central to the life of Israel—God’s justice and righteousness (Amos 5:24; Ps 33:4; 72:1–2; Prov 21:3; Isa 1:21; 5:7; 28:17; 32:16; Jer 22:3; 33:15).

In the Matthean narrative, Jesus becomes the teacher supreme, the sole instructor, of the people (23:8, 10); his final instructions to his followers are that they are to “teach all nations … to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20). So this Gospel invites us (indeed, it leads us) into the heart of Jewish faith, for it is there that Jesus takes his stand, calling for repentance, the enacting of righteous-justice, through a deeper, more radical commitment to the covenant that Israel has with the Lord God. See

All of that lies ahead of us in the coming twelve months. Yet this Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, we start with a confronting word from the latter part of the story: “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left; two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (Matt 24:40–41). This striking declaration sits alongside exhortations to “keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42) and “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (24:44).

These exhortations are characteristic elements in apocalyptic literature of the time; and they crystallise the sense of an imminent catastrophic event which is set out in a longer speech which is vivid and explicit in its dramatic apocalyptic imagery (24:3–44). Immediately after these exhortations, Jesus tells a series of four parables (24:45–25:46) which further dramatise the message that “the end is near”, “you do not know when”, “make yourself ready”, “be prepared”.

The section offered by the lectionary for the first Sunday in Advent (24:36–44) seems a strange place to start a year of Matthean stories about Jesus. Why begin Advent with an apocalyptic passage? And yet, the injunctions of this passage seem to sit neatly with the opening words of Jesus in this Gospel: “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). See

These words echo exactly the message of John the baptiser (3:2) and point forward also to the demands that Jesus makes throughout his public ministry, culminating in the calls to “keep awake” and “be ready”, because “you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”. The opening message of Jesus is clearly echoed in this later apocalyptic speech.

David Cassian Cole is the founder and executive director of Waymark Ministries CIC. He is known as Brother Cassian. He writes about a custom in the early centuries of the Celtic church, for Advent to stretch for 40 days (mirroring Lent, the 40 days of preparation prior to Easter).

Cole writes, “It is believed that the 40 days of Advent were split into three sections, colloquially termed the three comings of Christ. The first is the incarnation, what we all focus upon at this time of year; the second is Christ coming into our lives; the third is the coming of Christ at the end of all things, as depicted in the book of Revelation. The third coming of Christ is that which comes at the end of all things, and through this period the Celtic Christians examine their own lives, not in a self-judgmental way, but in a positive self-reflection to see whether they are ready and prepared, in the way they are living, for Christ to return at any moment.” See more at

So we are offered these words from the final long sermon of Jesus as the introduction to the year of Matthew: a reminder of the claim that God holds authority of the creation as the one who will determine “the time”, and that “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (24:36), a call to “keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42), an exhortation to “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (24:44).

Those phrases set forth the attitude that is required, in being open to the coming of Jesus—an attitude that is quite appropriate for Advent, that is essential for personal faith in Jesus, and that is fitting for the whole year of reading and pondering stories about Jesus, in this “book of origins”.

On the move: a central feature of the Christmas story

At Christmas, we recall a familiar story. Central to the story is the baby born in a manger, because “there was no room in the inn”. This element is, of course, told and retold countless times in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and in churches in every country around the world, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

That part of the story gets disseminated widely. That part of the story contributes strongly to the warm, fuzzy vibe that Christmas brings to many people. Less well shared, however, is that part of the story which reports that this family were soon under threat, and they hurriedly fled to another country, seeking the safety of refuge, until the threat was over.

Christmas cards, and Christmas carols, have tended to encourage us to romanticise and sentimentalise the first part of the story—the babe in the manger in Bethlehem. We sing so easily about the scene that Luke recounts in his Gospel, imagining it in the picture perfect way of so many cards and carols: the baby lying peacefully asleep in the manger, the adoring mother and doting father, the shepherds who come from the fields to worship. It all sounds so peaceful, so relaxed, so comfortable, so ideal.

As we sing all of this, I suspect that we forget that the newborn infant was born in the area that was shared with the animals, because there was no room, not in “the inn”, but rather in the guest room of the house where they were (according to the story) staying that night. So at the time when Mary gave birth, there were no homely comforts, but there would have been the sights and sounds and smells of the animals, all around.

We overlook, perhaps, that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child (Luke 2:8–16) would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation. They were outcasts, considers impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. In the Mishnah, a third century work which collects and discusses traditional Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers”. These are not highly valued guests!

We forget, also, that Luke’s account of this birth places it in Bethlehem, which is not the place where the newly-formed family lived. They had been forced to travel there, according to Luke’s account, because of a nation-wide census that was required by the Romans (Luke 2:1-7).

Giving birth to the child in that town, in that room, in that manger, was not the plan that his parents initially had; this was a temporary, unforeseen situation, basic and crude. This part of the story is not at all the comfortable and soothing scene that cards and carols regularly depict. The birth takes place after a forced journey, in an less than desirable setting.

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The second part of the story, that found in the Gospel of Matthew, also has an unexpected and forced journey involved. This part of the story relates to the rapid flight that the family took after the child was born, heading away from Herod, fleeing into the safety of Egypt, a foreign country (Matt 2:13-15). Matthew’s contribution to the story rarely fosters those warm, fuzzy vibes that many associate with Christmas.

And often, in church, this part of the story is left for the time after Christmas Day—which is logical, since this is where it comes in the flow of the story; but which means that, downunder at least, it is featured during the Great Summer Holiday which comes immediately after the feasting and festivities of Christmas Day (and Boxing Day, if there are still plentiful left overs!)

Matthew’s account sets out very clearly that this journey was not part of the original plan, worked out methodically in advance. Rather, this was a rapid response to an emergency situation, a hurried seeking of refuge. It was a temporary measure, undertaken under great duress.

The ruler who gives the order which provokes the family to undertake this journey is the man whom Jesus once called “that fox”: Herod. Ruling over Judea as a client king of the Romans, Herod was a half-Jewish man who had risen to the top of Jewish society through political cunning and strategic marriages. He had a reputation for violent brutality.

Matthew’s story recounts that Herod ordered that all male children under two years of age should be killed, to ensure that this potential rival to his rule would be safely despatched (Matt 2:1-3, 16-18). Jesus survived this because his parents were advised of the imminent pogrom by visitors “from the east” who had come via the court of Herod (Matt 2:13-15). This part of the story also does not sound relaxed, sweet, and comfortable!

And then, as the story in Matthew’s account continues, there is yet another journey, returning from Egypt, back into Israelis–but not Judea, for fear of the ruler who followed Herod, his son Archelaus; rather, to Galilee, where the family,settled in Nazareth (Matt 2:19-23). Another episode of dislocation and disruption, that rarely features in the classic carols and Christmas cards.

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It is because of these disruptive and confronting elements in the story that, in my mind, Christmas challenges us to think about those who have no shelter. It especially invites us to think about those who have nowhere safe to shelter because their homes are beset by warfare, their lives are constrained by oppression, their families have been decimated by murders, their houses have been bombed or shelled.

While the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on wider cross-border migration and displacement globally is not yet clear, UNHCR data shows that arrivals of new refugees and asylum-seekers were sharply down in most regions – about 1.5 million fewer people than would have been expected in non-COVID circumstances, and reflecting how many of those seeking international protection in 2020 became stranded.

Despite COVID-related movement restrictions and pleas from the international community for a ceasefire that would facilitate the COVID-19 response, displacement continued to occur – and to grow. As a result, above one per cent of the world’s population – or 1 in 95 people – is now forcibly displaced. This compares with 1 in 159 in 2010.

Most recent statistics from the UNHCR,
as of mid-2021

In that spirit, as we celebrate Christmas, let us also commit to working to ensure safety and security for those who are imperilled, homeless, stateless, and on the move. There are so many such people in our world today. There are so many ways we can live out the Christmas story as we reach out to them.

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The image is La Sagrada Familia by Kelly Latimore https://kellylatimoreicons.com/gallery/img_2361/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/25/acting-for-peace-through-the-christmas-bowl/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/