The Advent readings
Some of us can hear our readings and our psalms live at Mass, but even if we can only have broadcast services or reading the text for ourselves, studying them is an encouraging thing to be doing, particularly during this strange no-music Advent which seems to be what most of us are condemned to. So I thought I’d go through them and see what’s particularly interesting about this year’s readings, now that we have started Year B, which is the year when we read our way through Mark’s Gospel.
[Or for 2021 read about Advent of Year C : joy just round the corner ]
First Reading in Advent is always one of the prophets
Luckily the texts are rich in encouragement and beautiful images even without any musical help. Each year of the Lectionary, A, B or C, has its own distinct set of readings. Year A (which we just finished at the feast of Christ the King) starts with the early part of Isaiah, his vision of everyone streaming towards the lifted-up Temple with joy and excitement. Year B (which began with the First Sunday of Advent) starts with a reading nearly at the end of the book of Isaiah, the longest prophetical book of the Bible, and indeed the longest book of all, sixteen chapters more even than Genesis. Year C, when we reach it next Advent, goes through some of the minor prophets instead of Isaiah.
Isaiah, First Sundays of Advent A and B
The Book of Isaiah starts with an account of God’s anger at the faithlessness of Judah, its downfall along with the whole of Israel, and a call to repentance. Then in the second chapter, the mood swings round completely to an almost breathless call to everyone to ‘come up’, the great call to Jerusalem, which is the Year A reading (and we also have it as a regular reading in the Morning Prayer cycle). The Year B reading in contrast comes from the sixty-third and -fourth chapters, a long way away from the beginning of the book. Modern scholarship reckons that Isaiah is written by at least three writers, possibly by even more, but I don’t need to discuss that now, so for convenience, I’m just calling the author(s) Isaiah tout court. As you might expect, the excitement of the early chapters has dissipated, and the tone is more realistic and regretful : this is all taking much longer than had been hoped in the beginning. Now instead of all of us rushing to the mountain of the Lord, Isaiah calls on God himself to come down. He describes how men have sinned and behaved as though they had forgotten God, but Isaiah knows that God has not forgotten them. He reminds God that he is the Father, the Redeemer, the Lord of this people, and then he moves to a humble and intimate register : we are the clay, you are the potter. It throws us back to the beginning of Genesis, and the version of Creation where God makes Adam out of dust; but the prophet’s object here is not to remind us of our lowly beginnings, but to remind God that he has a responsibility to us because he made us.
First Sunday B : Save me in your love
This is poetry, not prose (Isaiah is written in both), but it’s the tone which is fascinating. It’s descriptive, not penitential. ‘We’ acknowledge our guilt and sins, but we aren’t apologising, but rather calling on God to come and save his people, just because he made us and is responsible for us. It’s almost like a challenge.
Psalm 79/80 : poetic form
The psalm (79/80) picks up this theme. It’s an interesting psalm, one of the ones with a very clear poetic structure even in translation. The first stanza is a call to God to come and help, and then there is a refrain : God of hosts, bring us back;/let your face shine on us and we shall be saved. The next stanza explains how bad the people’s current state is, and repeats the refrain. Then the psalm takes a different course, and recounts the story of a vine, brought out of Egypt and planted by God in another place (the allegory is very clear). It grew and flourished – and then God broke down the wall which kept it safe from all dangers. Now it is in dire straits, and God needs to turn back to his people and make things right again (and, almost as an afterthought, we shall never forsake you again), followed by the refrain one last time.
Psalm 79/80 : turning round, turning back
We don’t have the whole psalm on the First Sunday of Advent B. We have only the first call, then the request for God to turn back again to protect the vine, and then the last stanza about the man who will rescue the vine, interpreted for us as the coming of the Messiah, and the promise that we will never forsake God again, which looks less like an afterthought when the psalm is shortened like this. We keep the Response as it is set in the psalm (more or less, depending on your Lectionary), but all the versions have the idea of movement back towards, and because half the movement is for us to make and half the movement needs to come from God, there is a beautiful idea of both sides turning back to each other.
Second Reading and Gospel : stay awake!
Then we have Paul, thanking God for the strength of the Spirit among the Corinthians. The Gospel is Jesus encouraging everyone to stay awake because we do not know God’s timetable. Year B is Mark’s Gospel, but this is not the beginning of it, because that is the Gospel for the second week. This piece is just a few verses where Jesus encourages everyone to wait actively for what God is planning. It is to set the mood for the whole of Advent. Mark’s Gospel is probably the earliest, and certainly the most immediate and direct, where Jesus speaks very clearly and forcibly, repeating points to reinforce them. So we get ‘stay awake’ four times in only four verses of Gospel, it’s like a bell clanging. And because we can’t have music in church, here’s a link to the stunning Bach Chorale Wachet auf, the essential music for this season.
Second Sunday of Advent B : comfort now
The Second Sunday of Advent B is again Isaiah, but we have gone backwards, as this is from the middle section of the book, actually Chapter 40, where the tone changes to one of comfort. This is where Handel’s Messiah begins, and for anyone that has ever sung it, it’s impossible not to hear the music when you read the words. This is immediate comfort, not just hints of possible future solace : ‘Tell Jerusalem that her time of service is ended’….’shout without fear : here is your God’. So the coming is not just to be expected, it is actually here. The Lord is coming, mighty and victorious, but he is coming like a shepherd, cuddling a lamb, and we don’t need to be afraid any longer. How does the psalm respond to this?
Psalm 84/85, a psalm of two halves
It is Psalm 84/85, which is a psalm of two halves, though we are going to use only the second half. The first half remembers God’s mercy and forgiveness in bygone days, and appeals for them again. It ends with the couplet which gives us our Response : ‘Let us see, O Lord, your mercy /and give us your saving help’, but because it comes after cries for help and fear of God’s anger, it feels almost desperate.
Justice and peace have – already – embraced
The second half, the part actually prescribed for us to use, has a totally different atmosphere; the psalm in its entirety is like a before-and-after picture. It starts with confidence and serenity, describing God speaking of peace in the present, not even the future, tense. ‘Mercy and faithfulness have met’ even before God starts to speak. Everything is all right now. This is a beautiful psalm, with a picture of life almost like heaven or Paradise garden. We use this psalm for Australia Day because it is so idyllic.
Second reading : St Peter : How long is a ‘day’?
The second reading is from St Peter, clarifying the difference between God’s time and our time. The Lord is not slow, but he is patient, and he is giving us all time to reform before his return. This must have been so difficult for the first Christians, and Peter’s words are impressive in their simplicity and honesty. The apostles thought for a very long time that Jesus was going to come back in their lifetimes, and each of them had to work out how to handle the fact that he didn’t. Particularly during Advent, Peter’s explanation and encouragement to patience are worth reading and rereading.
John the Baptist bursts onto the stage : Gospel
Then the Gospel cuts to the chase : this time the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, quoting precisely the bit of Isaiah that we have just heard, setting the scene, and describing the arrival of John the Baptist. Mark doesn’t give us the (highly exciting) birth narrative, which is in the Gospel of Luke. He simply reminds us of the prophecy and then says …’and so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness..’ and we are on the way, because Mark has no birth narrative for Jesus either. He wants to tell us just about Jesus’ life as an adult, what he did, who he met, what he said, and what happened, which is why it can feel almost breathless (and count the number of times something happens ‘immediately’).
Third Sunday of Advent : Rejoice
We start the Readings for Gaudete (Pink) Sunday by going back to nearly the end of Isaiah again, this time celebrating a joyful prophecy of turning everything upside-down, with a hymn of exultation. The Psalm is actually a Canticle at this point, because it’s the Magnificat, from Luke chapter 1 instead of the book of Psalms, and not even all of that. We can’t sing it, so here’s another Bach link to the wonderful Netherlands Bach Society, singing the whole thing (if I can find good links, I’m going to put them in, because we’re all running short of music at the moment). However, it picks up the exultation of the First Reading in what is probably an exact quote in the Hebrew, if only I could read it (My soul rejoices in my God/ My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour), and continues the topsyturvey motif, feeding the starving and sending the rich empty away. Our Response is precisely the line which occurs in both texts. It’s good to see the Magnificat here, because so far Mary has not figured at all in these Year B Advent readings, and indeed, if you didn’t know it was the Magnificat, there is nothing to tell you, as the Gospel for Third Sunday of Advent B is the beginning of John’s Gospel, just after the Logos passage, where he describes the arrival of John the Baptist (similar to Mark’s account last week, but fleshing it out a bit), and his account of himself to the Pharisees who challenge him and ask if he is the Messiah.
Fourth Sunday of Advent B : somewhere special for God to be
So after three Advent Sundays, we are still poised waiting for something more than misty prophecies and gnomic denials. But the Fourth Sunday is coming. The first reading for the Fourth Sunday is from the book of Samuel, and is a little baffling to begin with. We are back in the time of David. He has just settled into his house, his enemies have all been dealt with by God, and David feels bad because the Ark of the Covenant is in a tent. He asks Nathan the prophet whether he should not make better arrangements, and at first Nathan says yes.
God’s promise to David
But God speaks to Nathan when he is asleep that night, to send a message to David. God does not need David to build him a house. He himself took David away from the sheep he lived among and has given him everything, from that day on. The unspoken subtext is that if God wants a better house than David’s, he could create it in no time at all. And then God makes astounding promises to David, about how he will plant the people of Israel in a place that God himself will choose and they will thrive; but as for David, he will give him ‘fame as great as the fame of the greatest on earth’, and when he dies, God undertakes to look after his children for ever. It almost sounds like the promises in fairy stories until you realise that it’s the other way round and the fairy stories are in fact a pale imitation of what God is promising here. David will have a House, like a Scottish clan or a European royal house, and God will always be in loco parentis to David’s descendants.
Psalm 88/89 : God’s promises will be fulfilled
This is followed by Ps 88/89 (all the Advent B psalms are fairly close together), which is a celebration of God’s love and truth. The second and third stanzas are part of God’s promise from the first reading set to music, so that the prophecy is repeated, and the words of the Response express total confidence that God will keep his word. The second reading is St Paul to the Romans, explaining that Jesus is the solution and revelation of the mystery and everything has happened according to God’s plan. And finally we have the Gospel, taken from Luke (because Mark and John don’t do the birth narrative), and describing the Annunciation, explaining how Jesus is the fulfilment of precisely the prophecy we have had in the other readings, and tying everything together. Mary gives her consent; the angel leaves her. God has arranged the very special place for him to dwell in. Mary is far more than just a container, but that was one of the ways in which her role was interpreted in the early days of the Church. Her titles in the Litanies include ‘Spiritual vessel’, ‘Vessel of honour’, ‘Tower of David’, ‘Ark of the Covenant’, and so on.
‘A’ virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph
I feel it’s almost a shame that we have to wait for the Fourth Sunday to get to this point, because the next thing that happens (liturgically) is the Christmas Masses (Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, Day), but I would like to have a chance to spend more time thinking about Mary at this stage. What must it have been like for her? We don’t hear anything about her mother in the narrative, only about Elizabeth; was she the only person in whom Mary could confide? Mary must have been living with someone, even if her mother or father were dead, because she is so young, but we hear nothing about anyone else on Mary’s side of the family. We hear (in Matthew’s Gospel, interestingly, not in Luke, where Mary is traditionally supposed to have had some input) about Joseph’s disquiet, and generous decision to ‘put [Mary] away quietly’, after discovering that she is pregnant, but we are told nothing at all about Mary’s feelings. All we have is her two sentences to the angel, and the Magnificat, that chant of joy and confidence, subversive and yet so orthodox (see how it mirrors the prophecy in Isaiah, and also the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2). But I think back to being pregnant, the joy, the wonder, the trepidation, the excitement, the longing, and my heart goes out to that unexpected and unexpecting central character of the whole narrative of Advent. Christmas is about Jesus; but Advent is surely about Mary. We wait with her.
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