|The Sánchez Archives
SECOND SUNDAY OF
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
WAITING AND WELCOMING THE COMING ONE
Waiting, an inevitable and even necessary aspect of human life is not something that most of us relish. We wait in lines: in order to purchase groceries; to be served at popular restaurants; to be attended to in a bank; at stop signs and traffic signals; at amusement parts; to see a play or film. We must also wait for flowers to grow and bloom; for babies to be born; for wounds to heal; for bread to rise and cheese to age; for children to mature; for friends to call; for love to deepen. Statisticians have estimated that in a lifetime of 70 years, the average person spends at least three years waiting!
For believers, however, it is not inconceivable to think of the entire span of a human life as a period of waiting --waiting for the God who comes.
Samuel Beckett, Irish author, critic and playwright, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, cast a rather pessimistic eye on this aspect of the human condition. Along with Albert Camus, Eugène Ionesco and Arthur Adamov, Beckett regarded the very notion of waiting for fulfillment or divine intervention as absurd. In his play, Waiting for Godot (1953), two people, Vladimir and Estragon (who are often portrayed as tramps) spend their lives patiently, but aimlessly, waiting for someone who never comes. To exacerbate the situation, the two characters have no evidence that Godot (probably God) intends to come or that he even exists. Set on a stage, empty except for a solitary tree, the two figures enunciate Becketts perception of human existence as mindless and purposeless. At this point, Beckett introduces a second pair of characters who unlike Vladimir and Estragon, pursue and attain their well-defined objectives, e.g. power, wealth, a desirable spouse, yet their lives also are empty and without meaning.
Happily, the Theater of the Absurd with its hopelessness and pessimism has no place in the life of the believer, except perhaps to renew in him/her a gratitude for the gift of a God who comes, who has come, who will come and who never departs. Because of this, Advent is a season characterized, not by mindlessness and purposelessness but by a delicious joy and eager anticipation.
In the first reading from Isaiah, the prophet gives voice to the eager hopes of his people who confidently awaited the messiah and all that his reign would bring. In the gospel, John the Baptizer proclaims that the waiting and messianic longings of his people are to be answered in the person and mission of Jesus. But preparations must be made; through repentance and faith, believers are to prepare a welcome for him in their lives. Paul, in writing to the Romans reminds his readers that those who wait together for the many comings of our God should overlook their differences and sustain one another in mutual support and acceptance.
While we may never learn to enjoy the pragmatic waiting which is a part of our everyday activities, we are reminded, in todays liturgy, to savor the joyful waiting which is Advent. He comes; he shall not disappoint. Repentance, faith, and communal harmony are all the welcome he desires.
Isaiah of Jerusalem lived during a period of Judahs history when people chose to remember the past with longing or to look to the future with hope rather than dwell on the present moment. Prophet to his people and advisor to the king during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (ca. 742-700 B.C.E.), Isaiah and his contemporaries saw the northern kingdom of Israel fall to Assyria in 722 B.C.E. Although Isaiah was relentless in his efforts to avert a similar situation in Judah (by advising Ahaz and Hezekiah against foreign alliances in favor of a renewed covenantal fidelity), nevertheless, the southern kingdom was forced into vassalage by Assyria by 701 B.C.E.
Remembering the prestige and power of the reigns of David and Solomon, the people pined for a reinstatement of their former glory. Also recalling the divine promise of an everlasting Davidic dynasty (2 Samuel 7:14) the people of Judah looked to the future with a yearning wherein God would fulfill his pledge. But Isaiah called his contemporaries to assume a more existential posture; live in the present moment, he advised. Turn back to him who is faithful, even to his faithless people (Isaiah 1:16-20); return to his ways, today, and then wait in hope. He will surely hear and answer.
In explaining how God would respond to the sincere conversion of his people, Isaiah offered three oracles concerning a future king. The first two oracles (Isaiah 7:10-17, 9:1-6) were probably delivered to Ahaz, king during the Syro-Ephraimite war (when Israel, a.k.a. Ephraim, allied with Syria to attack Judah). Although today, because of the fuller sense of scripture, we understand that the description of the messiah or anointed king featured in these oracles applied to none other that Jesus, Isaiah and his contemporaries were thinking in terms of the next king to accede to the throne in Judah, viz. Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. (For an excellent exposition of the fuller sense, or sensus plenior, of scripture, see the article by Raymond E. Brown in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, # 71:49-51).
The oracle which comprises todays first reading seems to come from a later period in Isaiahs ministry, after Hezekiahs reign had proved to be as disappointing as that of his predecessors. The messiah, or king herein described, appears to be some yet unknown, future king endowed with the spirit of God (vs. 2) and blessed with all the charisms needed to lead his people well (vss. 2-5).
Comparing the long line of unworthy kings to the stump of Jesse (vs. 1), Isaiah declared that the coming king would be the fruit and flower of the Davidic dynasty, through whom knowledge of the Lord (vs. 9) would once again be renewed. Recall the fact that knowledge of God in scripture refers not merely to intellectual acumen but to an experiential awareness of God, which is expressed in a relationship with him. Even though Israels knowledge of God had been inadequate (hence its downfall) in the past (Isaiah 1:3), its future would hinge upon it. Under the aegis of the divinely gifted future king, all the earth would be filled with that knowledge; as proof thereof, an Eden-like peace would prevail. All hostilities will cease both in the world of nature as well as among humankind.
In Jesus, the incarnate word and wisdom of God, this oracle of Isaiah has become a flesh-and-blood reality. Knowledge of God is available to all who would hear his word and daily attend to it. His reign of peace has indeed begun but has yet to be appropriated and accepted by all. Isaiah was his herald but we are the ambassadors of his reign; as such, we are reminded once again today, that the fullness of his peace and justice will come only when all the people of the earth are led to seek him, to turn from evil and know him.
From what we can deduce from scripture (Romans, Acts) there were several house churches in Rome and when Paul wrote to the Christians in that city, he addressed them altogether as all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy (Romans 1:7). Probably the most well known house church in the city was that which gathered at the home of Priscilla and Aquila (16:4-5). Ernst Kasëmann (Commentary on Romans, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1980) believes that this couple was among the earliest missionaries in the diaspora.
Having begun their ministry independently of Paul, they worked first in Rome (late thirties to early forties C.E.), until the Edict of Claudius forced Jews (and Jewish Christians) from the city. From Rome they went to Corinth and then to Ephesus where they also established house churches and began to collaborate with Paul.
Other house churches in Rome were hosted by Aristobulus (16:10), Narcissus (16:11), a group of believers mentioned in Romans 16:14 and another in 16:15. Among twenty-six people greeted by Paul at the conclusion of his letter, there seems to have been a broad political and ethnic diversity which included a Persian, an African, Jews, Gentiles, persons of the imperial class, slaves, women who were ministers, as well as men. As Del Birkey has observed, in summarizing the situation of the Roman churches, the word community is not totally appropriate, since they existed in plurality: (The House Church, A Model For Renewing the Church, Herald Press, Scottdale, PA: 1988). In fact, the Roman church remained decentralized and was not organized under the administrative authority of one bishop until the second Christian century.
Aware of the differences which characterized the Roman communities and in order to safeguard against a splintering of their tenuous union, Paul called for harmony and mutual acceptance (vss. 5, 7). For their edification and inspiration, Paul told the believers in Rome that they could avail themselves of two main resources, viz. the scriptures and Christ himself.
With the phrase everything written before our time (vs. 4), Paul referred his readers to the body of scripture which had been accumulated thus far--the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament. Because of this emphasis on the sacred word, the second Sunday of Advent has been traditionally celebrated among Anglicans as Bible Sunday. In scripture, Paul advises his readers, there are valuable lessons of patience and words of encouragement.
Another resource is the example of Christ himself (vss. 4-9) who welcomed and accepted everyone, regardless of race, gender, class, or degree of holiness. Earlier in his letter, Paul had called the Romans to wonder in awe with him at the fact that Christs loving welcome and acceptance was so profound that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (5:8).
Today the Church which gathers to worship the coming Christ is no less diverse, no less disparate. Pauls words remind us that the same resources which helped to forge harmonious respect among the Roman believers (the scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ) are still present to us. While we wait together for his advent, let us avail ourselves of these great gifts.
History buffs can attest to the fact that in those nations led by monarchies or other autocratic figures, each successive king, queen, dictator or despot accedes to the throne with a certain show of power. By flexing their political muscles, the ruler asserts his/her domination over the subjects of the realm, whose loyalty is assured and enforced by treaty, oath, military might, or sanctions. With the reign of God, however, the situation is entirely different. No force is exerted, nor is there a display of might; rather those who are invited to accept his reign, i.e. the saving will of God into their lives, must, of themselves, prepare a welcome for his emissary Jesus.
As herald of Jesus and the reign of God, John the Baptizer explained by word and example precisely how to go about preparing a welcome for Jesus. Those who came to hear him speak, in the Judean desert near the Jordan, were told, Reform your lives! (vs. 2). Reform or repentance indicates that welcoming the reign of God requires a thoroughgoing conversion. In Hebrew, the word for conversion, or shubh, implies that a person has found himself/herself on a wrong path or going in a wrong direction and has made a complete about-face or turnaround in order to return to God. In Greek, the term for conversion is metanoia, which means an absolute change of mind and will. Conversion is not simply a personal decision to better oneself; rather it is the free response of a person to the prior initiative of a saving God. In other words, conversion means offering a welcome to the God who continually comes and knocks at the door of the human heart.
Another way of perceiving the dynamic of conversion is to understand it as a process of identifying oneself with Christ. One of Matthews objectives in writing his gospel was to help his community to explore and assert its identity. Rooted in Judaism but also distinct from it, the growing Matthean church of the 80s C.E. was challenged to define itself in terms of its faith in Jesus, as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises and prophecies. To so define or identify oneself with Christ required that every subsequent thought, word, deed and decision be consonant with what the believer professed to be, i.e. a disciple who welcomed the reign of God.
Johns apparel of camels hair and leather portrayed him as a prophetic figure like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) whom it was believed would return to herald the messiah (Malachi 4:5). The diet of locusts and wild honey recalled the wilderness period when the newly escaped refugees from Egypt were being formed as a people by God in the Sinai. But locusts were also a symbol of divine judgment in scripture (Exodus 10:12-20, Deuteronomy 28:42), as honey was a sign of promise and blessings (Exodus 3:17). Perhaps Johns diet signaled that the coming reign and its emissary, Jesus, would bring both judgment and promise upon the earth, a fact that is borne out in the rest of the gospel.
Through Johns preaching, the gospel makes the point that religious heritage will no longer be sufficient grounds for salvation. To those who made such claims, e.g. Abraham is our father (vs. 9), John replied that reform or conversion was the only way to welcome the reign of God. To those who accepted his challenge, John offered the baptism of repentance, explaining that his was only a preparatory rite. Announcing the coming of one more powerful than himself, John proclaimed that the coming baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire would be one of purification, judgment and new life.
Today, and all during the Advent season, we are called to hear and to respond anew to Johns cry, Reform your lives! The reign of God is at hand.
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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
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