Lectionary Reflection: Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

“…to bring good news…” (Is 61: 1) What good news is there really in the world as we continue to see terror and violence, racism, injustice, victory of euthanasia, victory of pro-choice movements, and ultimately, the effects of this COVID-19 pandemic? Maybe the recent news of the Pfizer vaccine as good news, but right now, it is only available in certain countries to a small population. We also face uncertainties in the midst of the is good news – will the vaccine have a problem? Will anti-vaccinators comply? When will things be back to “normal”?

I think in light of today’s Lectionary readings provided for this ‘Gaudete Sunday’, this ‘Sunday of Joy,’ we should think about what it means when we say go back to the “normal,” because there is one truth, that I mentioned in last week’s reflection – things will never go back to how they were before the COVID-19 pandemic… but it is not all that bad. There is “good news.” However, first, I think it is appropriate to look at the cases of “normalcy” being “stirred up” in today’s Scriptures.

We look to today’s first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. I think today’s passage is one that if people really do not know many quotes from the book of Isaiah, then at least they will know excerpts of today’s passage, because a fair portion of it is referenced explicitly in Luke 4. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me…” (Is 61:1, Lk 4:18) “The servant,” referenced in Isaiah is a reference to Jesus Himself. We see this passage again right after Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation, as He begins His public ministry. In the scene painted in Luke, imagine you going to the “synagogue on the sabbath day.” (Lk 4:16) A lector named Jesus stand up to read, just like any other lector. He opens the scroll and reads the excerpt from the book of the prophet Isaiah, the reading we hear in today’s first reading, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…”

However, upon rolling up the scroll, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) Things are “okay” as people are amazed at what Jesus said (Lk 4:22), but not everything goes smoothly as Jesus stirs them saying,

Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.

(Lk 4:24-26)

The Gospel notes at the end that when the people heard those words, the people who just earlier “spoke well” and “amazed” at Jesus, turned into a crowd in which “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” (Lk 4:28) Yet, why was the excerpt and the prefiguring of Jesus from Isaiah 61 so “controversial” in a sense for people of the time? Why was it that because of this passage that provided such a hopeful image lead to a seemingly ‘grim’ episode that eventually led to Jesus being led out of His hometown (cf. Lk 3:29-30)? Re-read the first reading and you will see,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

(Is 61:1-2)

The people of Jesus’ time were thinking, if Jesus were truly the prophet mentioned in Isaiah and indeed truly be fulfilled, why are there still poor people, slaves, blind, lepers… in other things, why are there still bad things happening? In a sense, Jesus’ coming was something that disturbed normalcy in the lives of the people of his hometown and people did not want to face, or rather, unable to understand the full picture. Jesus’ coming was not a guarantee that every bad thing of the world would be erased – Jesus’ miracles only covered people of a certain geographical area. Instead Jesus was bringing healing of a much higher level, something surpassing that of this world – that is SALVATION, and the people of Jesus’ hometown missed the bus on that.

In the responsorial canticle today, however, we see someone who was able to accept something beyond her day to day normalcy – that we see in Mary, as we use the words of the Magnificat. Mary was someone very open to new things, even if it went against the current of her times because she trusted wholly in God. I can imagine the mixed emotions that Mary had when she said the Magnificat in her encounter with her cousin Elizabeth: certainly, she was likely very happy to meet her cousin, but those feelings are mingled with those of perhaps some sense of worry about how things will turn out for her, and possibly for Elizabeth who was conceiving John the Baptist. However, Mary did not let any worries dominate her as she only looked to God and placed herself in the hands of God’s providence to the point that even in her abnormal state of life, she was able to exclaim, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (Lk 1:47)

We must be open to the coming of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. That is what Christmas is, the celebration of God taking on human flesh to be “Emmanuel – God is with us.” Yet, how often do we hold on to the past, hold on to our old ways because for some it is only when they hold on to normalcy that they feel a sense of security, or more importantly, false security? Each and every one of us must open our hearts to be receptive to the will of God, and even when things do not go our way, do not hesitate to let go and say to God, “God I am willing to work with you, but I need Your help to help guide the way.” God will never reject such a prayer because prayer is the result of us being open to the will of God, and that means working with Him. This concept of prayer is mentioned in the second reading today, “My brothers and sisters. rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thes 16-18) Ultimately though, God does not need our praise and thanksgiving, ‘but our thanksgiving is itself your [God’s] gift, since our praises add nothing to your [God’s] greatness but profit us for salvation.” (Common Preface IV) How so? Because when we express thanksgiving to God, we recognize that we need help. We say, “thank you” to someone recognizing that they have helped us with something, even if it were for something. This is the case with God, in thanksgiving we come to the realization that we need God in our lives and therefore, we make ourselves open to God.

We live in a sense of uncertainty day-to-day, particularly during this time of pandemic. Our “normal” how we once knew it to be has been disturbed for almost a year, but that is really no excuse for us to not give thanksgiving to God, or to reject God. God wants to be with us, and thus 2000 years ago became present in human flesh in the mystery of the Incarnation. However the question is, are we willing to accept this Godly Joy? Or are we just going to cling to our false securities, our own sense of “normal”?

Do not be afraid because with the incarnation of Jesus, death becomes life, and there’s no need to escape: in eternal life, something extraordinary awaits us.

Bl. Carlo Acutis

The journey to eternal life is going to be “abnormal” in the earthly sense. There will be things that will not go the way we want it. We will face trials like pandemics, but that should not deter us on our way to eternal life. Just keep your head up high, keep on going and look towards the Light. When we embrace the fact that we are to live in God’s great providence, we will become more loving, more caring people, attentive needs of others. We will come to love our friends and family more. Ultimately, we will come to love the Church more, and therefore, come into a deeper relationship with God. If so, by the time that we get out this pandemic, things won’t seem too bad…

About Vincent Pham

Vincent is a humanities student of the University of Toronto’s Trinity College of the Faculty of Arts and Science. He hopes to pursue a double major in Ethics, Law and Society, and Philosophy.
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