advent The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Coming Home

ISAIAH 40:1-5, 9-11
2 PETER 3:8-14
MARK 1:1-8

As Advent season yields to Christmas, many will take the opportunity to go home to family and friends in order to renew the bonds of love which have made us who we are, and which sustain us in the day to day ups and downs of life. Some homecomings are particularly poignant and even difficult, such as when there has been a recent death in the family. Coming home to celebrate without the loved one seems to renew the sense of loss and dredge up a sorrow which we thought we had put to rest.

Other homecomings are profoundly moving, fraught with an intensity of joy which seems almost overwhelming. In particular, I recall watching the televised homecoming of the American prisoners of war who had been held for years in North Vietnam. Their maimed bodies were clothed in uniforms which appeared too large for their emaciated frames. Nevertheless, those who could, walked off the plane, and as each saluted proudly, the welcoming crowds and the viewing audience could not help but realize the terrible suffering they had endured. But coming home meant the end of that ordeal and a new beginning.

Another such homecoming was featured in Alex Haley’s epic saga of an American family, Roots. “Chicken George”, son of Kizzy and grandson of the family’s African patriarch, Kunta Kinte, had been sold by his master to English gentry who used the man’s skills at training cocks to fight. George had been promised that after a few years in Europe, he’d be able to return home to his family, a free man. But, as with many such promises, years passed before it was fulfilled. When at last George did return, his coming home had significance for all his family; this would indeed be a new beginning.

Now a free man, George had the capability of buying the freedom of his aged wife, grown sons, their wives and his grandchildren. Though their aged and sinewed faces bore a visual record of years of want and struggle, their eyes burned with an unmistakable determination to keep family together and to keep alive the traditions of their ancestral African people. Those same eyes brimmed with tears of joy at the thought of leaving their slave quarters and of finally coming home, to a plot of land bought by Chicken George in Tennessee.

On this second Sunday of Advent, each of the selections from scripture would also have us consider the notion of coming home. Deutero-Isaiah (first reading) offered his exiled contemporaries in Babylonia a vision of a return to their homeland of Israel. A glorious event which would reprise their first homecoming from Egypt to the promised land, Israel’s repatriation signaled the expiation of guilt and the end of slavery at the hands of their oppressors. Like the released P.O.W.’s and like “Chicken George” and his family, Israel’s homecoming would mean freedom to reestablish their own identities to shape their own futures and to preserve the principles and traditions they had suffered to retain. It meant, in effect, a new beginning.

Pseudonymously, the author of 2 Peter (second reading) wrote to encourage those who were growing impatient and disillusioned with the delay of Jesus second coming. Eager to welcome the day of the Lord, they regarded Jesus’ return as the beginning of the great eschatological homecoming to God of all the faithful.

John the Baptizer, who functions as a travel guide through the Advent season, offers a different slant on the experience and spirituality of homecoming. In today’s gospel, John is introduced in the Marcan prologue as a messenger. Like a child watching at the front room window, ready to signal the arrival of expected guests, John’s mission was to recognize Jesus and announce his coming to his contemporaries. In order to prepare to meet Jesus, those who heard John’s preaching were challenged to make of their hearts and minds, a place of coming home, a place of welcome for the one who would bring salvation.

During Advent, with Isaiah’s encouragement, John’s guidance and through God’s provenance, there will be many homecomings to celebrate. In addition to the ordinary comings home of students who have been away at school, soldiers who have served abroad, and families, who live out of state, the Advent experience challenges those who have been away from the praying community to come home. Those who have lived in an exile caused by anger or a persistent grudge are also called to come home. Often these types of homecoming are facilitated by an invitation from a friend and through the promised support from others. Advent is also a season for sinners to come home to God’s forgiveness. But, most importantly, Advent provides an opportunity for believers to “wait at the window” in order to recognize the many comings home of our God and to rejoice in the possibilities of a new beginning.

ISAIAH 40:1-5, 9-11

During World War II, there were a variety of underground groups that sprang up throughout German-occupied Europe in an attempt to oppose the Nazi regime. Known generically as the Resistance, this grassroots movement was comprised of still untold numbers of civilians as well as armed partisans and guerrilla fighters. Their activities on behalf of their respective governments included: assisting in the escape of Jews, captured Allied soldiers and others who were unjustly detained; committing acts of sabotage and smuggling intelligence information to the Allied command; publishing and circulating clandestine newspapers and other informative literature. Among the publications of the Resistance were poems, songs and accounts of heroism intended to bolster their compatriots to persevere against the growing tyranny.

If the time that Deutero-Isaiah and his contemporaries spent in exile in Babylonia could be compared to the oppression of Europe during the second world war, then the visions, songs and oracles, through which the prophet supported and encouraged his people, could be called Resistance Literature. Also known as the Book of Comfort or Consolation, Isaiah 40-55 is the work of an unnamed mid-sixth century B.C.E. prophet. Writing almost two centuries after Isaiah of Jerusalem, this prophet saw the oracles of his predecessor being realized. Israel had been unfaithful to the covenant and fell to Assyria (722 B.C.E.); a sinful Judah had likewise been overcome by Babylonia (587 B.C.E.). Deutero-Isaiah believed that just as God’s purpose had been accomplished through the events of human history for the chastisement of the people, so also would God’s plan for healing and restoring Israel be worked out in the arena of political fortunes.

The prophet was, no doubt, aware of the continued successful campaigns of Cyrus the Persian. As Cyrus’ conquering armies grew stronger and drew nearer and nearer to Babylonia, Deutero-Isaiah began to see hope for Israel’s future. He interpreted the approaching end of their exile and as God’s forgiveness of their sin and their anticipated return home as God’s gift of reconciliation (v. 2). Although, they had strayed, God, their loving shepherd had sought them out to bring them home (v. 11) to a new beginning.

Just as a desert had stretched between themselves and their homecoming when they were founded as a people (exodus from Egypt through Sinai desert to promised land) so now, once more, a desert lay between the exiles and their homeland. Envisioning their coming home as a second exodus, the prophet shared with his people the vision of a “first-class” journey: the desert would be a straight highway (v.3); valleys would be filled in, and mountains leveled in preparation for their return (v.4). Through the miraculous cooperative efforts of nature, the glory of God would be revealed for all to see (v. 5).

Some scholars suggest that Deutero-Isaiah’s description of the way prepared in the desert (v.3) may be an allusion to the “obligation laid on Jewish peasants of assisting Persian engineers in building a road through the desert east of the Jordan.” The prophet encouraged his contemporaries not to balk at the work “because this route can become for Yahweh the counterpart of the ‘Sacred Way’ built by Babylon for the procession of the god Marduk.” (Thierry Maertens and Jean Frisque, Guide for the Christian Assembly, Fides Publishers, Inc., Notre Dame: 1971).

In this his inaugural vision, the prophet has identified himself and his mission as well as the role of Israel for the future. Deutero-Isaiah will be a voice of comfort, mediating the reconciling and restorative love of God for Israel. For its part, Israel is to be a herald of glad tidings (v. 9). In the LXX (Septuagint, Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures), the herald or messenger of glad tidings is given the title evangelist. Carroll Stuhlmueller suggested that the good news announced by Israel “is not so much a message as it is the people (themselves) whose glorious redemption manifests the divine redeemer” (“Deutero-Isaiah”, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs: 1990). Given Stuhlmueller’s insight, perhaps the prophet has also identified the mission of the Advent believer, viz. to proclaim through the witness of word and work that this is a season of coming home to God.

2 PETER 3:8-14

Traditionally attributed to Simon Peter, this letter was probably written c. 50 or 60 years after the apostles death (ca. 110-120 C.E.). As the last written piece of all the New Testament literature, 2 Peter’s pseudonymity is affirmed by the fact that: (1) it incorporates the letter of Jude as its central focus; (2) it alludes to a collection of Paul’s letters (3:15-16) which were not compiled before the end of the first Christian century; (3) it refers to “your apostles” (3:2), suggesting that it did not derive from that earlier group; (4) it synthesizes a wide range of traditions about Peter from quite diverse sources. (Jerome H. Neyrey, “The Second Epistle of Peter”, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Englewwod Cliffs: 1990).

Invoking the name of Peter, whose authority was beginning to be recognized as the foundation rock of Christian tradition, the author’s well-ordered argument combined both apology and polemic to answer a dual crisis in the church, viz. God’s theodicy or power to judge the world, and the delay of eschatology.

Because of the ever widening interim between the comings of Christ and because God appeared slow and even reluctant to pronounce judgment upon the evils of the world, certain heterodox Greeks and Jews tried to persuade the early Christians that there is no providence or judgment in God. Since they denied the existence of an afterlife, these heretics also denied the rewards and retributions which would follow God’s definitive judgment.

In response to these attacks, the author of 2 Peter argued: Divine time cannot be compared to human time. . . “one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years are as a day” (v. 8, see Psalm 90:4). “This text was understood apropos of the delayed judgment of Adam. Although in Genesis 2:17, God said, ‘On the day you eat it you will die. . .,’ Adam lived another thousand years. This delay of judgment was explained as God’s gift of time to Adam to repent and be saved” (Jerome H. Neyrey, op. cit.). In other words, in God were “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6; Pss 103:8, 145:8; Numbers 14:18) then it was not because of an incapacity to judge, but rather it was due to God’s patient forbearance with sinners. Rather than doubt the divine power to provide and judge, the author of 2 Peter recommends that sinners take full advantage of the “delay” in order to come home, in sorrow and repentance to God.

Then, with a nod to the expectations of all his readers, the author combined the traditional Jewish ideas of the day of the Lord with the apocalyptic and Greco-Roman notion of the final conflagration (vv. 10, 12-13). Sandwiched in between these admittedly fearsome descriptions of the end is an ominous question. Since all deeds will be manifest on that great and unpredictable day, “what sort of persons ought you to be?” (v. 10b-11a). Just as little children prepare for Christmas with special efforts at goodness, 2 Peter offers an Advent reminder that only “holiness in conduct and devotion” (v.11) will stand in good stead when the final appearance of Christ determines the ultimate homecoming (or not) of every human person.

MARK 1:1-8

Mark was a pioneer but for centuries his unique accomplishment was diminished by the fact that Matthew’s was believed to be the earliest gospel. Today, there is a general consensus among scholars that, not only did Mark’s version of the good news appear first, but that he is responsible for creating the literary genre which we call gospel. Since Mark and the Marcan community will act as both host and witness for the gathered assembly during this new liturgical year, it may prove beneficial to gain a sense of familiarity with them.

Although, as Raymond E. Brown correctly states, “Studies (of Mark) do not allow us to reconstruct the profile of the community addressed by Mark” (The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, Paulist Press, Mahwah, N.J.: 1984), there are some hints from tradition and in the gospel itself that suggest a Roman (not necessarily the city of Rome) environment. Papias of Hieropolis in the early second century C.E. is quoted as saying, Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately whatever he remembered of what was said or done by the Lord, however not in order.“ A Roman matrix for the community is also suggested by the use of Latin loanwords in the Greek text and by the sense of impending (if not already present) persecution which permeates the gospel. Some scholars believe that Mark wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 C.E.) but most agree that a setting in the mid to late 60s C.E. is more accurate.

Many factors precipitated the transition from an oral to a written transmission of the good news: the apostolic eyewitness to Jesus were dying; the community was growing and spreading rapidly; heresies and erroneous interpretation of Jesus’ teaching and preaching were afoot; delayed eschatology was taking its toll in that some grew lax while others departed the community altogether; persecution was increasing. No doubt, the deaths of Peter and Paul in the mid-sixties also proved to be an impetus in committing the Christian tradition to a more fixed and permanent form.

Using the sources available to them (viz. sayings and parables of Jesus, stories of healing and controversy, passion narrative), Mark and his community ordered and shaped these according to a geographical-christological structure.

Geographically, the gospel features Jesus as moving from Galilee to Jerusalem. Christologically, Mark guides his readers to an understanding of Jesus’ authority. Identified from the outset as Son of God (1:11), the gospel goes on to reveal Jesus as the Messiah, Son of David (12:35, 15:22), rejected by his own people (3:7-6:6), misunderstood by his disciples (6:6-8:21) and ultimately crucified by those who reject his authority (14:-16:8). Mark wrote his gospel to encourage and foster the faith of his readers who, as Jesus’ disciples, would follow his path through rejection, persecution and death to life and salvation.

In today’s gospel, the evangelist presents John the Baptizer, who, by reprising the message of Deutero-Isaiah, indicates that his ancestor’s prophetic vision is now being fulfilled. The desert has again become a highway for homecoming, not to Israel, but to God. Sinners are being challenged by John to leave behind their former ways of sin in order to come home to God’s forgiveness. John also points out that now the way home go God has become a person, one more powerful than he, one who will bring the Holy Spirit.

John’s wardrobe and food choices also reveal something of his purpose. Clothed in camel’s hair and a leather belt John recalled the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) whom, it was probably believed, would be precursor of the Messiah. John’s unusual diet may have been attributed to his asceticism. Or, as some scholars suggest, since locusts and wild honey were the traditional symbols of judgment (Exodus 10.4; Psalm 105:34; Isaiah 33:4) and comfort (Exodus 3:8; Deuteronomy 6:3), they may have been mentioned in order to announce the dual nature of the good news of Jesus. Still today the locusts and wild honey teach us: for those who would come home to find God in Jesus, there will be comfort; those who refuse the invitation will bring judgment on themselves.

[NOTE TO USERS: This archive is available for use without charge, but it remains the property of the author and under copyright with Celebrations Publications. Users are permitted to print individual Sunday commentaries for pastoral use, but are prohibited from downloading or copying files or printing any portion of this for sale or distribution.]
e-mail the Celebration editor at

Copyright © 2000 Celebration Publications

Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
Celebration Publications
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111