Reading 1: Isaiah 61:1-2A, 10-11
Responsorial Psalm: Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54.
Reading 2: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
If I had to identify a principal seasonal tone in the readings for the first three Sundays in Advent in Cycle B of the lectionary (and perhaps A and C as well), it would be “urgency.” Taken as a whole the scriptural texts for these three days are studded with hard-to-miss imperatives. “Be watchful!”; “Be alert!”; and “Watch!” (First Sunday, Mk. 13). “In the desert, prepare the way of the Lord!” (Second Sunday, Is 40:3 & Mk. 1:3); and “Make straight the way of the Lord!” (Third Sunday, Jn 1:23).
And yet, as Advent imperatives go, the mother lode is undoubtedly today’s second reading from First Thessalonians. The first seven verses (1 Thes. 5:16-22) are actually a series of discrete “exhortations” which some commentators speculate may have been derived from a primitive catechism. A striking feature of these exhortations is what “tall orders” each of them is. Rehearsed in reverse order, Paul enjoins the Thessalonian church to “refrain from every kind of evil” and adhere only to what is good by “test[ing]everything” (my emphases). He warns them not to close themselves off from some of the radical prophetic stirrings which have already been the source of significant internal stress on their fledgling community of faith. As if this isn’t tough enough, he hits them with three more utterly uncompromising entreaties: Never stop giving thanks; never stop praying, and never stop rejoicing.
I like to think there had to be at least one Thessalonian Christian — let’s call him “Bill” — who, upon hearing these exhortations for the first time, quipped sarcastically under his breath, “Is that all?”
I have to admit, I feel a lot like Bill. I sit writing this reflection in the ninth month of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Swirling around me is the sickness, death, economic hardship, and environmental devastation that human sinfulness has once again allowed to disproportionately affect the economically and racially marginalized — what Isabel Wilkerson would refer to as our “subordinate,” “disfavored,” and “historically stigmatized” castes. This Sunday, like so many Sundays since March, my wife, my octogenarian parents and I will light a candle and huddle around a computer screen to celebrate the eucharist via livestream. I anticipate watching as the presider at Old St. Patrick’s Church in the West Loop lights the rose candle, vested in his rose chasuble. Soon thereafter I will hear the words of the second reading and it’s then that I feel myself channeling my first-century Thessalonian alter ego and saying, in my head, to St. Paul:
“Thanks for the sound advice. I really mean it. (See, I’m actually being grateful!). Seriously, though, I get the need for an unwavering commitment to the moral life. I know how critical it is to keep listening to the wisdom of the voices no one wants to hear, especially when these voices make me uncomfortable. And I realize that, if I’m not constantly practicing gratitude for the blessings I do enjoy, it’s the spiritual equivalent of smoking three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day and being surprised by a terminal diagnosis of lung cancer. Also, my spiritual journey thus far, as half-hearted as it’s often been, has also taught me that without constancy in prayer — what the Holy Qur’an refers to as ‘recollecting God with frequent recollection’ (Q 33:41) — none of this is possible. I get all that. But ‘rejoice’? Really? At times like these? C’mon, man.”
I’m not sure whether I can imagine how the historical Paul would respond. I like to think Bill’s attitude might spark just a hint of nostalgia in the great Missioner to the Gentiles for the former’s heretic-persecuting days when a good stoning could teach an upstart dissenter like him (and me) a thing or two. But then I realize that a big part of the answer to Bill’s and my question about this second reading can be found in the implicit rationale for the selection of readings for the past three Sundays. Taking her cue directly from the Gospels themselves, the Church is encouraging us — almost insisting — that we see God’s mission and Christian discipleship first and foremost through the very same lens as both the Synoptic and the Johannine traditions see the ministries of Christ and his forerunner John: the lens of the bold and revolutionary prophecies of messianic liberation found in Isaiah.
I have no doubt that from his vantage point in the Judean desert, John clearly saw the intense suffering of poverty, disease, and oppression of various sorts swirling around him just as we see it swirling around us today. He was certain its cause was massive and systemic human sinfulness, and that the only effective way forward was repentance. If he didn’t know for certain, I wonder if he at least harbored a strong and nagging suspicion that, no matter how hard he tried to “quarantine” himself in the wilderness from the pandemic of systemic corruption and injustice, the “virus” would eventually come for him too. All this stirred in him that sense of apocalyptic urgency that he embodies as the central figure of our Sunday Advent readings. With all this suffering and the urgency it evokes, like Bill, how much time or energy could John possibly have for “rejoicing”?
And yet, if we look more deeply, and allow our imaginative gaze to be guided by Isaian prophecy, we get a glimpse of how even a locust-eating, fire-breathing doomsayer like John could have rejoiced — if not “always,” then at least often enough. After all, John appears to have had the special joy of knowing exactly who he was not (i.e., not the “light,” nor the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet), and therefore who he actually was (i.e., the “voice” of Is, 40:3) and what, with the little time he had, God expected him to do (“testify to the light” and “make straight the way of the Lord”). He had no misplaced expectations of what he could accomplish. He knew his limitations and had no delusions of grandeur — only an unwavering faith and trust in the grandeur of God. Perhaps most importantly, he knew that God had finally sent the messianic light to shine in the darkness of the world and he knew that, even if he were never to see this light in the fullness of its glory, his job was to tell others that the light will illumine the darkness and that this is the light that no amount of darkness can overcome.
Like John the Baptist (and Bill), each of us is called to testify to the light of justice and peace in all that we say and do. Indeed, in and through our own baptism in Christ Jesus, each of us has this light within us. Having this vocation to testify to the light — a light that is ours for the sake of the world — is, despite the darkness swirling around us, at once both a tall order and a source of unmitigated joy. So, in the words of the Apostle: let us “Rejoice!” — this Advent, this Christmas, and “always.”
Scott C. Alexander, PhD
Professor of Islamic Studies
Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program