2NDSUNDAY OF ADVENT (Cycle A)

Readings:
Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17

Romans 15:4-9

Matthew 3:1-12

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The First Advent of Christ and the Announcement of the Coming of His Kingdom
In the days of the season of Advent, leading up to the celebration of the birth of our Savior, the faithful of Jesus' Kingdom of the Church look forward in time, anticipating Christ's promised return in His Second Advent.  It is an appropriate reflection in preparation for celebrating the birth of the Savior when we look back in time, remembering His First Advent when His coming forever altered the course of human history. 

In the Old Testament, God's holy prophets foretold the coming of a future Redeemer-Messiah.  As a descendant of the great King David, the Israelites anticipated the Messiah to come as a righteous king to redeem them and all humanity, ushering in a reign of justice for all eternity.  In the First Reading, the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah foretells His coming.  The Messiah, he wrote, will be a descendant of Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David.  He will rule over God's people with a charism that comes from God, and He will be a signal for all peoples of the earth.  All nations, including the Gentiles who in the past were shut out of the covenant with Yahweh, will seek the Davidic Messiah as their Lord, and He will welcome them into the peace of His glorious kingdom.

The Responsorial Psalm, attributed to King David, depicts an ideal king and his reign, probably referring to David's son and heir Solomon.  However, Jewish tradition has always interpreted this psalm as a description of David's promised heir, the Davidic Messiah.  The psalmist offers his prayers for the Davidic king and the righteousness of his reign for the people as a whole and especially in securing justice for the poor.  

Christian tradition interrupts this psalm as a prophecy of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah who is the son and heir of David and fulfills God's eternal covenant with King David.  Jesus' kingship extends across the earth, as the psalm declares, and it is Jesus who brings universal salvation as the divine Messiah-King to both Jews and Gentiles.  The promise of the ideal Davidic king's universal rule is the reason the Church uses Psalm 72 in the liturgical calendar for the celebration of the Mass on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, when the Magi, the first Gentiles from the nations of the earth, came to adore Jesus, the newborn Davidic king.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul quotes the Old Testament five times in Romans 15:1-13 to make his point that what happened in the First Advent of Christ fulfilled what the prophets wrote in the Old Testament Scriptures.  Paul writes that everything written in the Old Testament is meant for the instruction of every generation between the Frist and Second Advents of Jesus Christ who embrace the New Covenant Kingdom of the Davidic Messiah.  As heirs of Christ, we are also heirs of the promises made to the Patriarchs and heirs of King David's promised eternal kingdom that is the Church over which Jesus reigns.  It is to us as Christ's heirs that God displays His faithful love and extends the promise of our rightful inheritance in the eternal Kingdom of Heaven.

In the Gospel Reading, St. John the Baptist calls the covenant people to a ritual water immersion in preparation for the coming of the Messianic Era and the new Davidic Kingdom.  Ritual immersion as a symbolic act of purification or renewal was familiar to the Jews; however, St. John's ritual of immersion in the Jordan River for repentance and conversion was unique.  John's ritual baptism takes on aspects of purification from defilement (sin) coupled with the one-time conversion experience of Gentile converts.  St. John's baptism prefigured Jesus' baptism into death and new life in His crucifixion and Resurrection.  The people who came to repent their sins in St. John's baptism were turning away from the rebellion of sin and turning back to God in faithful obedience.  Moreover, in one decisive act they were also turning to a new beginning in preparation for the coming of the Messiah's Kingdom and their journey to salvation.

The First Reading Isaiah 11:1-10 ~ The Oracle of the Coming of the Davidic Messiah
1 On that day a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.  2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, 3 and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.  Not by appearance shall he judge nor by hearsay shall he decide, 4 but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land's afflicted.  He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.  5 Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.  6 Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.  7 The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox.  8 The baby shall play by the cobra's den, and the child lay his hand on the adder's lair.  9 There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.  10 On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.

In the year of King Uzziah's death, Isaiah received his prophetic vocation while praying in the Jerusalem Temple (about 740 BC).  He received his divine call as God's prophet to preach God's coming judgment to what had become the divided Kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south in a covenant lawsuit for the people's failure to remain faithful to their covenant with Yahweh.  Their apostasy resulted in a prophecy judgment of exile, but in His mercy, God also provided the promise of an eventual future redemption.  The setting of this oracle of redemption is Jerusalem, the capital of the Southern Davidic Kingdom of Judah.  Our reading is the third Emmanuel (God-with-us) oracle of the prophet Isaiah (also see 7:1-8:22 and 9:1-7).  This oracle has two parts.

Part I (verses 1-5) is the formal announcement of the accession of a new Davidic king.  The oracle announces that the Davidic Messiah, "the sprout," will come from the "stump of Jesse" of Bethlehem, the father of the great King David.  After the exile of the Israelites of the Northern in the 8th century BC and the exile of the Jews of Southern Kingdom of Judah to Babylon in the 6th century BC, only a "stump" of the Davidic line of those descended from Jesse (King David's father) remained.  The new king will be humble because he comes from a "tree" (the Davidic line of kings) that has been "pruned" (received God's divine judgment) and yet has produced a vital new "bud" or shoot (verse 1).  The bud refers to the future king in the David line and not the current Davidic monarch.  Verse 2 promises that the new king, thanks to the power of God's divine Spirit, will be blessed with exceptional qualities that will equip him to rule in justice.  The Spirit is a gift God gives to key figures in salvation history to enable His agents to accomplish a divine mission: for example Moses (Num 11:17), the Judges of Israel (Judg 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6; 15:14) and David (1 Sam 16:13).

2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, 3 and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
In verse 2 the oracle prophesizes that the new Davidic king will rule over God's people with a charism that comes from God and not like the self-seeking kings of previous reigns.  Isaiah names three pairs of gifts with which the Spirit will endow the future king:

In Scripture "knowledge" of God is always defined as obedience to God's commandments. The fulfillment of these divine attributes will give the new king joy in obedience as God's divine representative to the people.

Part II of the oracle (Is 11:6-11) describes the good that is associated with the reign of the promised future Messianic king from the line of King David.  The oracle uses imagery related to an era of Messianic peace in which creation will be restored to its state of original justice before mankind's fall from grace.  The harmony and perfection that reigned over Creation before Adam's fall and the corruption of sin will be restored among the wild animals.  Man will be filled with divine grace in the "knowledge of the Lord" (verse 9).  The "child" mentioned twice in verses 6 and 8 is not the promised child of the second oracle (Is 7:14) but the image of redeemed man.  The "they" of verse 9 are the redeemed who are citizens of the Davidic Messiah's kingdom whose mission is to spread the knowledge of the Kingdom of Yahweh across the face of the earth.

10 On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.
"On that day" the Davidic Messiah will "set up as a signal" for all peoples of the earth, and all nations, including the Gentiles who have been shut out of the covenant with Yahweh, will seek the Davidic Messiah as their Lord and will be welcomed into his glorious dwelling place.

The Church sees this oracle as being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, the son of David, who is the Messiah and legitimate Davidic heir (Mt 1:1; Lk 1:32-33; 2:11).  Jesus is the Messiah who came to redeem the scattered "lost sheep" (Ez 34:4, 16; Mt 15:24) and to bring justice and righteousness to the earth.  He has sent out His emissaries of the universal Church (the holy mountain) to gather into His kingdom the Gentiles who are now also called to come into a covenant relationship with God and to receive the divine gift to salvation through Jesus the Messiah and King of Kings.  The Church is the "signal" Jesus has set up to call all nations to Himself (verse 10).  The Church sees herself as both the "signal" and the "faithful remnant" (Is 11:11) of Israel who has experienced God's gift of universal salvation and whose mission is to bear witness to this joy to all nations and peoples of the earth according to Jesus' command when He said: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." Jesus' promise to always be with us fulfills Isaiah's first Emmanuel oracle in which it is promised that the Davidic Messiah is Emmanuel, which means "God with us" (Is 7:14).  Isaiah's prophecy of the restored creation will not be fulfilled until the Second Advent of the Messiah at the end of time and the creation of the new heaven and earth promised in Revelation chapter 21.

Responsorial Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17 ~ Justice and Peace in the Era of the Messianic King
The response is: "Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever."

1 O God, with your judgment endow the king, and with your justice, the king's son; 2 he shall govern you people with justice and your afflicted ones with judgment. 
Response:
7 Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more.  8 May he rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Response:
12 For he shall rescue the poor man when he cries out, and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.  13 He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor, the lives of the poor he shall save.
Response:
17 May his name be blessed forever; as long as the sun his name shall remain.  In him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed; all the nations shall proclaim his happiness.
Response:

This psalm is attributed to David's son, King Solomon, and was probably written for his enthronement ceremony as the new Davidic king.  The psalm depicts an ideal king and his reign which Jewish tradition attributes to David's promised heir, the Messiah.  In Psalm 69-71 the psalmist asked for divine help on his behalf.  Now he offers his prayers for the Davidic king and the righteousness of his reign, for the people as a whole, and for justice for the poor (Ps 72:1-2).  Righteousness and justice are attributes connected with the saving power of God (Ps 9:4, 7; 19:9-10; etc.).  The use of the words "king" and "royal son" refer to the same thing and is applied to the principle of the dynastic legitimacy of the Davidic kings as promised by God in His covenant with David (2 Sam 7:11b-16; 23:5; 1 Kng 2:4).  It is the anointed Davidic king who shares in God's saving power from on high in unending righteousness and peace from one end of the earth to the other expressed as from the River Euphrates (the original northern boundary of Israel in Gen 15:18) to the ends of the earth (verses 7-8).  The ideal Davidic king is the deliverer of the poor and the weak, and he offers them his salvation (verses 12-13).  Because of his reign of justice, the psalmist prays that the future king endures forever, and he will bless all nations.  The reason all nations acknowledge the Messianic king is because He has brought deliverance to the oppressed of the world and salvation to all people (verses 12-13).

Christian tradition interrupts these verses as a prophecy about Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah and the legitimate son and heir of King David (Mt 1:1; Lk 1:32).  It is Jesus Christ who fulfills this psalm: it is Jesus who brings universal salvation as the divine Messiah-King, it is Jesus' name that is above all other names (verse 17 and Phil 2:9), and it was the Gentile Magi who came to adore baby Jesus at Bethlehem (Mt 2:1, 10-11).  It is for this reason that the Church also uses this psalm in the liturgical calendar for the celebration of the Mass on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord when the first Gentiles of the nations of the earth came to adore the newborn Davidic king.

The Second Reading Romans 15:4-9 ~ The Old Testament Prepared Us for the Advent of the Messiah
4 Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.  5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, 6 that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  7 Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.  8 For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, 9 but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.  As it is written: "Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles and sing praises to your name."

St. Paul will quote the Old Testament five times in Romans 15:1-13 to make his point that everything that happened in the First Advent of Christ fulfilled what the prophets wrote in the Old Testament Scriptures.  All Scripture (everything previously written before the Advent of Christ) is not written only for those in the generation in which the inspired writer wrote it down but is also meant for the instruction for those who come to embrace the New Covenant in Christ, as Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth: Now all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were described in writing to be a lesson for us, to whom it has fallen to live in the last days of the ages (1 Cor 10:11).  Paul says that all Christians can look to every Old Testament passage for instruction which includes the Palms passage he quotes in verse 9 from Psalms 18:49.  Paul's point is that these verses from Sacred Scripture read in the light of Christ and His Passion will provide the kind of "encouragement" and "perseverance" that will give the Roman Christians (and all of us) the hope we need to endure in faithfulness.  We are to endure in the unity of "one heart" to the glory of God the Father, even when we, like Yahweh's beloved David and like Yahweh's beloved Son Jesus Christ, suffer for our faith in living a life of obedience to God.

7 Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.  8 For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, 9 but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.  As it is written: "Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles and sing praises to your name."
The first words of Romans 15:7 are a repeat of Romans 14:1 ~ Welcome one another....   However, in 14:3 it was God's welcome, and now it is Christ's welcome for the sake of God's glory.  In Romans 15:7-9 Paul defines the ultimate mission of the Church.  The true mission of the One Holy and Apostolic universal Church is to bring the Gospel of salvation to the nations of the world so that God's name will be glorified through all the earth and that His Son, Jesus Christ, is recognized universally as God's gift to humanity.  Both Jewish (the circumcised) and Gentile Christians are to accept one another, united as one people in this mission as citizens of a Kingdom that is ruled by Christ the King! 

In Romans 15:8 Paul says it was necessary for Jesus to come as a minister to the "circumcised," meaning the Jews.  Jesus confirms this in Matthew 15:24 where He said "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  Jesus came to redeem mankind as a Jew, to minister to them, and to confirm and fulfill God's promises to the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-Israel).  In doing this He gave evidence of God's faithfulness and truthfulness.  It would become the mission of the faithful remnant of Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah to carry the New Covenant Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentile nations (see Matthew 28:19-20). 

St. Paul defines Jesus' mission in bringing salvation to the Jews and the Gentiles as having three parts (Rom 15:8):

Once again, in Romans 15:9, St. Paul turns to Scripture to make his point by quoting from Psalm 18:49.  The key to understanding this part of Paul's letter is revealed to us by Paul in Romans 15:4-7 where he says we must apply all Scripture for our instruction in the "light" of Jesus Christ.  Psalm 18 is a triumphal hymn of deliverance in which David, the servant of God and God's anointed king of Israel, praises the works of Yahweh who has delivered him and has given him victory from all his enemies.  The psalm ends with a promise to praise Yahweh among the Gentile nations: For this I will praise you, Yahweh among the nations, and sing praise to your name.  He saves his king time after time, displays his faithful love for his anointed for David and his heirs forever (Ps 18:49-50).  Verse 49 of this psalm has the prophecy that all nations will come to worship the One True God.  In the Temple, the covenant people sang this hymn at every liturgical Sabbath celebration. 

Paul is linking God's promise to the Patriarchs and the "fathers" like David with God's promise to bring in the Gentile nations into covenant with Him.  St. Paul's point is that these are the promises that are being fulfilled in the ministry of the Roman Christians as members of the Body of Christ in continuing Jesus' ministry.  As heirs of Christ they (and we) are also heirs of the Patriarchs (Gal 3:29) and heirs of King David's promised eternal earthly kingdom that is now the Church over which Jesus reigns (2 Sam 7:16, 29).  It is to us as His children and heirs that God displays His faithful love and extends to us the promise of our rightful inheritance in the eternal Kingdom of Heaven.

The Gospel of Matthew 3:1-12 ~ Prepare for the Coming of the Lord
1 John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  3 It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: "A voice of one crying out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths."  4 John wore clothing made of camel's hair and had a leather belt around his waist.  His food was locust and wild honey.  5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.  7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.  9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father."  For I tell you, God can raise up children [sons = ben] to Abraham from these stones [eben].  10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.  I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  12 His winnowing fan is in his hand.  He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."  [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, page 6). Verse 9: sons (of God) is ben in Aramaic and stones (as in to Abraham from these stones) = eben in Aramaic.

1 John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
The desert/wilderness had special significance in the history of the Old Covenant people.  It was in the crucible of the wilderness between Egypt and the Transjordan that God transformed a community of former slaves into the holy nation of Israel over a period of forty years (Dt 1:1-3).
St. John the Baptist was a kinsman of Jesus whose father was a descendant of Moses' brother Aaron and who served as a chief priest in the Jerusalem Temple.  St. Luke tells the story of the announcement of St. John's birth and his consecration to God from the womb of his mother  (see Lk 1:5-17, 24-38):

  1. John was the son of the priest Zechariah.
  2. The angel Gabriel foretold His birth. 
  3. The Holy Spirit filled Him in his mother's womb.
  4. He was a kinsman of Jesus through Mary.
  5. His mission was to turn the people back to their God, leading them in the "spirit of Elijah," the 9th century BC prophet, to make them "fit for the Lord." 
  6. Like his father, John was a descendant of Aaron and was also a chief priest. 
  7. John was six months older than Jesus.

John the Baptist appeared ...  The Greek verb translated as "Baptist" is baptizein, which means "to dip, soak, or immerse into a liquid so that which is dipped takes on qualities of what it has been immersed in."  The title "immerser," translated "baptist," is applied to St. John in the New Testament.  He was the last and greatest of the Old Covenant prophets (Mt 11:13; Lk 1:76; 7:26) who God sent to prepare the way for the Messiah.  His ministry was enthusiastically received by the people since no prophet had been sent by God to His people since the prophet Malachi in the mid-5th century BC.  St. John's title "immerser" stems from his practice of purifying the Jews in the waters of the Jordan River as a symbol of their repentance and renewal in preparation for the forgiveness of their sins and the coming of the Messiah.  It was significant to the people that this new prophet dressed in the same way as the great prophet Elijah (Mt 3:4; 2 Kng 1:8).

In verse 2, St. John the Baptist calls the people to prepare for the coming of the Messianic Era and the new Davidic Kingdom.  Jesus will repeat this same statement in Matthew 4:17, calling for repentance in preparation for the Kingdom.  The Old Covenant people of God understood the necessity of a confession and repentance of sins to remain in fellowship with God.  All sin sacrifices began with confession of sin and all peace offerings (communion sacrifices) with a confession of praise.  These imperfect Old Covenant animal sacrifices prefigured the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Heb 10:1-10), while the ritual purity laws requiring immersion prepared the Old Covenant people for the Sacrament of Christian Baptism.

There were many ways in which an Old Covenant believer might become ritually impure under the Law of the Sinai Covenant.  The entire sixth section of the Jewish Talmud-Mishnah oral Law is devoted to "cleansing rituals."  Becoming immersed or washing in clean, flowing waters was a prescribed means of ritual purification under the Law as outlined in Leviticus chapter 14-15.  Ritual purifications in a ritual immersion pool (mikvah/miqvah) occurred many times for a covenant member during his/her lifetime (see Mishnah: Miqvaot, 1:1-10:8).   However, every Gentile convert to the faith had the one-time experience of a profession of faith in the God of the Patriarchs and then to be ritually immersed as part of the conversion experience.  This act symbolized the washing away of the old life and rebirth as a member of the covenant community, and it is carried forward in a much more profound way in New Covenant Christian baptism which is not a symbol but is a Sacrament of rebirth (Jn 3:3-5). 

... for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!  In the New Testament, the Greek word basileia is translated "kingship" (an abstract noun), "kingdom" (a concrete noun) or "reign" (an action noun).  We can divide Salvation History into four periods of the "Kingdom of God":

  1. Before the Advent of Jesus Christ
  2. During Jesus' earthly ministry
  3. In this present (last) age of man
  4. In the age to come with the return of Christ to claim His Bride the Church

The New Testament presents three teachings about the Kingdom of God:

  1. The Kingdom of God is at hand/near (Mt 3:2; 24:33)
  2. The Kingdom of God is present (Mt 4:17; Lk 17:21).
  3. The Kingdom of God is yet to come in the future (Mt 25:1; Jn 18:36; Acts 1:6-7).

There is no contradiction.  St. John the Baptist and Jesus announced the coming of the Kingdom of God during their ministries.  Understanding the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven/God is crucial to understanding the Bible and God's plan for man's salvation.  In this present age, the Kingdom of God is present in the Church and it comes to all who put their faith and trust in Jesus and His message of salvation.  And yet in the present, the Kingdom comes only partially.  To live in Christ through the Eucharist and to receive God's grace in the other Sacraments of His Church is to be journeying toward our salvation and to have peace in one's life even though there is no peace in the world.  However, when Christ returns at the end of this the Final Age of man, as He promised, He will unite the Kingdom of the Church on earth to His Kingdom in Heaven, inaugurating a Kingdom that is complete in the Kingdom has finally come in all its fullness.

The Kingdom is a condition in which the authority of God's sovereignty is acknowledged by mankind, in heaven and also on earth (Mt 6:10) through His Church.  The Church on earth is called the "pilgrim Church" or "Church militant" which is still involved in the struggle for salvation.  The Church in Heaven is called the "Church glorified" and consists of the saints with God in heaven.  The "Kingdom" is also a condition in which God's promise of a restored creation free from sin and death begins to be fulfilled.  This restoration begins when heaven's gates are thrown open to the redeemed (CCC 1026).  It is completed upon a final trial, the return of the Messiah, and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth (CCC 675, CCC 677; also see Rev 20:11-21:1-4).  

3 It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: "A voice of one crying out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." 
Matthew is quoting Isaiah 40:3 to show that John's preaching in the desert and his proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of heaven is a fulfillment of the prophecy of the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah.  St. Mark will couple this prophecy with Malachi 3:1 (see Mk 1:2-3) and Luke will quote Isaiah 40:1-3 from the Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation (Lk 3:4-6).  The "voice" in the prophecy is calling the people to prepare the way for God to return to Jerusalem, to begin his reign, and to reveal His glory to all humanity.  Matthew is saying that John son of Zechariah the priest is not simply one more priest-prophet calling the people to repentance and conversion.  He is identifying St. John as the great prophetic "voice" of Isaiah's prophecy who is the herald announcing the coming of God to His kingdom. 

In identifying the prophetic voice as St. John the Baptist, Matthew is making a veiled revelation concerning the identity of Jesus.  If John is the prophetic voice who is announcing that God is coming to claim His kingdom, and if St. John is also calling the people to prepare the way for Jesus the promised Messiah, then it follows that Jesus, the Davidic Messiah, whose name means "Yahweh/God is salvation," is linked to the coming of God himself to restore Israel.

The Old Covenant people did not study the prophecy of a single prophet in isolation from other prophetic texts.  If the Jews made the connection that St. John the Baptist was the prophetic voice proclaiming the coming of God to His people and that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah who is to be sent to "shepherd my people Israel" (Mt 2:6), they may have also recalled the well-known 6th century BC prophecy of the coming of the future Davidic Messiah by the priest-prophet Ezekiel.  In chapter 34 of the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet gave the people God's message condemning the priests of Israel for failing to properly "shepherd" His people, followed by the promise: For thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after and tend my sheep.  As a shepherd tends his flock ... I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd.  I, the Lord will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them, I the LORD [YHWH], have spoken (Ez 34:11-24; emphasis mine; [...] = literal translation from The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. III, pages 1986-87). 

If they made the connection to the prophecies of Ezekiel, the Jews may also have connected John's ritual of water purification with the same section of Scripture, Ezekiel's prophecy of a new form of water purification with which God promised the restoration of Israel: I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.  I will put my spirit within you and make you live my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.  You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ez 37:25-28).  Note that Ezekiel wrote his prophecies in the 6th century BC after the last Davidic king of Judah was taken into exile by the Babylonians (King David died centuries earlier in c. 970 BC).

4 John wore clothing made of camel's hair and had a leather belt around his waist.  His food was locusts and wild honey.
Matthew's description of St. John the Baptist confirms that he dressed like a prophet and the food he ate in the wilderness was "clean," in faithful observance of the Law (see Lev 11:20-23; locusts and honey were "clean" as food).  When the angel Gabriel announced John's birth to his father Zechariah, the angel told him that God was sending John in the "spirit and power of the Elijah" the prophet (Lk 1:17).  In the Book of 2 Kings 1:8, King Ahaziah's soldiers described Elijah as wearing a distinctive hairy garment with a leather girdle just as John's clothing is described (Mt 3:4).

For religious Jews, this information was significant.  It tied both John and Elijah to another prophecy concerning Elijah found in the last verses of the book of the last prophet of Israel, the prophet Malachi, whose name means "My Messenger."  Elijah was God's prophet in the 9th century BC, and Malachi was God's prophet centuries later in the mid-5th century BC.  The prophecy in Malachi 3:22-24 (in some translations it lists as 4:4-5) names the prophet Elijah who is prophesied to return as God's messenger before the "day of the LORD comes" to call the people to repentance.

The prophets St. John the Baptist (1st century AD) and Elijah (9th century BC) have more in common in their ministry than a similar taste in clothing:

  1. Both prophets were sent to call the people to repentance and conversion.
  2. Both prophets had to face hostile kings.
  3. Both prophets were succeeded by prophets who were greater than they were.
  4. Both experienced a revelation of the divine on the banks of the Jordan River.

God gave Elijah's successor, the prophet Elisha, the gift of a double portion of Elijah's spirit.  Elisha performed twice the number of miracles as his predecessor, (2 Kng 2:9-15).  Jesus, who came as Israel's definitive prophet, priest, and king, succeeded the ministry of St. John, and He was a greater prophet and miracle worker (CCC 783, 904).

The chief priest did not miss the similarities between John and Elijah; therefore, they asked John if he was the prophet Elijah (Jn 1:19-21).  John denied being Elijah because he was not the bodily reincarnation of Elijah.  The angel Gabriel told John's father that John was Elijah in the sense that he came with the spiritual gifts of Elijah (power and spirit); just as the prophet Elisha received the spiritual gifts of Elijah.  Jesus quoted Malachi 3:1 (Mt 11:10) and said told the Apostles on two occasions that John has come as the Elijah-messenger of the prophecies (Mt 11:13-15 and 17:11-12).  The Malachi's prophecies were fulfilled in St. John the Baptist who, in the spirit of Elijah, called God's people to repentance and conversion in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.  The spirits of both Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah, named in the Malachi prophecy (3:22-23), will stand with Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration in the presence of Sts. Peter, James, and John Zebedee, bringing together the Old and New Covenants in the presence of the glorified Jesus (Mt 17:1-3).

5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. 
Ritual immersion as symbolic of purification or renewal was familiar to the Jews; however, St. John's ritual of immersion in the Jordan River for repentance and conversion was unique.  John's ritual baptism takes on aspects of purification from defilement (sin) coupled with the one-time conversion experience of Gentile converts.  In John's baptism, which prefigured Jesus' baptism into death and new life, the people who came to him to repent their sins were not only turning away from the rebellion of sin and turning back to God in faithful obedience.  They were also, in one decisive act, turning to a new beginning in preparation for the coming of the Messiah's Kingdom and their journey to salvation.

Repentance and conversion are the first works of grace of the Holy Spirit, effecting justification which follows God's merciful initiative of offering His forgiveness to the contrite and repentant sinner.  In repentance of sins, one turns toward God and away from sin.  The repentant sinner accepts God's forgiveness and righteousness, and the human heart opens to become a holy reservoir of divine love:  "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man" (Council of Trent: DS 1529; CCC 1982).  Sin contradicts the love of God and separates man from God.  Justification separates man from sin and purifies his heart.  "When God touches man's heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God's grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God's sight" (Council of Trent: DS 1525).

The offering of St. John's ritual immersion for the repentance of sins was a preparation for Christian baptism but it was not the same.  Old Covenant priests could only offer forgiveness of sins by making atonement for the repentant sinner through the repeated rites of blood sacrifice on the altar of God at the Jerusalem Temple.  Only Christian baptism in Christ Jesus offers full forgiveness of sins through Jesus' one perfect blood sacrifice.  However, John's baptism and Jesus baptism were both a call to conversion.  John's baptism was a call to conversion in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.  But Jesus' baptism is a conversion to a new birth in the gift of life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and is the first step the professed Christian takes on the path to salvation.  See Lev 4:32-35; 17:11 and CCC 535, 977-78, 1425-26.

In encouraging the people to make a declaration of confession and repentance, John was readying the souls of those who came to him to receive the Messiah and take part in the inauguration of His Kingdom.  St. John's call for repentance was the beginning of the process of the opening up of the Kingdom that reached its climax when the Passion of Christ Jesus merited justification for mankind as He offered Himself on the altar of the Cross in His blood sacrifice as the perfect, sinless victim.  In His holy offering, Jesus' blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of mankind (Rom 3:21-26), opening the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven to all repentant sinners seeking the grace of God (CCC 1026).  In the preaching of St. John and the preaching of Jesus, they both stress that there is an urgency to repent and turn back to God because "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (see Mt 3:2 and 4:17).

Matthew 3:7-12 ~ St. John the Baptist Condemns the Pharisees and Sadducees
7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.  9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father."  For I tell you, God can raise up children [sons = ben in Aramaric] to Abraham from these stones [eben in Aramaic].  10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.  I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  12 His winnowing fan is in his hand.  He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."  [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, page 6).

In 1st century AD Judea, there were several rival groups who sought influence over the people; the two most influential groups were the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  Very little is known about these two groups of Jews outside of the New Testament and the writings of Flavius Josephus (1st century AD Jewish priest and historian).  It should be noted, however, that not all Pharisees were hostile to Jesus:

The point of St. John's insult to the Sadducees and Pharisees was that he did not believe their show of repentance was sincere.  Vipers are little snakes.  John is essentially calling them the offspring of the big snake, the Serpent who is Satan.  His point is that like Satan they stand in opposition to God's plan for man (Gen 3:1, 14-15; Wis 2:24; Rev 12:9; 20:2; Mt 12:34 and 23:33).  St. Paul defined good works as evidence of repentance (Acts 26:20).

9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father."  For I tell you, God can raise up children [sons = ben in Aramaic] to Abraham from these stones [eben in Aramaic].
St. John uses a word play on the Aramaic words for the similar sounding words "sons" (ben) and "stones" (eben).  St. John's point is that the Jews believed their ethnic identity as descendants of Abraham and the covenant ritual of circumcision guaranteed their special status as God's chosen sons/people.  St. John is telling them that to be children in the family of God takes more than physical descent and more than an outward physical sign like circumcision.  God desires an inward transformation; He desires the genuine repentance of "circumcised hearts" not just circumcised bodies if His people want to withstand His judgment (see Gen 17:5-14; Dt 10:16; Dt 30:6; Jer 4:4).

The Jews coming for St. John's baptism of repentance would not have missed that St. John's form of baptism was very similar to the ritual immersion of Gentile proselytes who desired to become members of the covenant family of God's holy people.  In this warning to the Jews, John is saying that even the descendants of Abraham must prepare for the coming of the kingdom by a declaration of a change of heart through repentance and baptism just as Gentiles converts had to do.  It was a shocking declaration, and following it he gave a warning.

10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
The symbolic imagery of the prophets depicted a covenant faithful Israel as a fruitful fig tree or a vine (Is 5:1-2; Ez 19:10-11; Jer 24:4-7), while unfaithful Israel or wicked Gentile nations were depicted as trees that were destroyed by fire (Ez 31:12; Dan 4:11; Is 5:3-6; Ez 19:12-14; Jer 8:13; Nah 3:12-15; also see the Chart "Symbolic Images of the Prophets").  John's warning is that God's judgment is coming and like unfruitful trees that are cut down and destroyed by fire, those who refuse to repent and turn back to God will experience His fiery wrath.  St. John applies the fiery judgment imagery to an unrepentant Judah like the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 4:4).  Jesus will use the same unfruitful tree imagery for Judah when He symbolically curses a fig tree on the Monday of His last week in Jerusalem (Mt 21:18-22; Mk 11:12-26; Lk 13:6-7).

11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.  I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
It was a slave's duty (when required) to carry the sandals of his master.  Most Jews considered carrying a master's sandals or washing a master's feet such a demeaning task that most Jewish slaves were not expected to perform such services.  In this statement, John is now addressing those who have sincerely come seeking repentance through John's baptism, and he makes two significant statements about the One who is coming:

  1. John defines the greatness of the one who is coming by saying that he does not consider himself worthy enough to even carry His sandals like a lowly slave.
  2. John contrasts his baptism for repentance with the baptism of the one who is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit of God and with fire.

In the imagery of the prophets, "spirit" and "fire" were associated with purification and restoration.  The Old Testament prophets warned of a purifying fire that would refine the souls of God's people by burning away what was impure and purifying the souls of the repentant sinner (Is 4:4; 66:24; Joel 2:30; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-4/4:1).  They also promised an outpouring of the Spirit when God came to redeem His people (Is 32:15; 31:31-34; 40:24; 41:16; 44:3; Jer 4:11-16; 23:19; 30:23; 31:31-34; Ez 13:11; 36:25-27; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29).  These were prophecies that were very familiar to the people and the significant word clues and actions that John used would have triggered the recall of these significant prophecies.

John's promise of one who will baptize with God's "Holy Spirit" would have called to mind for the Jews another prophecy connected to the coming of the Davidic Messiah in Ezekiel 34:23-24.  In Ezekiel 36:25-27 God promises His people: I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.  I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees (emphasis added).

St. John's judgment imagery continues with the "wheat" and "chaff" metaphors in his next statement when he says of the coming Messiah: 3:12 His winnowing fan is in his hand.  He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."  After the harvest, the workers took the grain to a flat surface called a threshing floor.  Threshing floors were usually located at the top of hills where the wind would help in the separation of the fruit of the grain from its inedible chaff.  The workers tossed the grain into the air with a fork-like device called a winnowing fan.  The heavier pieces of the grain fell to the floor while the lighter chaff blew away.  The workers gathered the gain and stored it for future use, but they gathered the chaff and destroyed it by fire. 

John the Baptist uses what was a familiar image of the harvest as a symbolic image of the "great harvest" when God will separate the fruitful souls of the righteous from the souls of the wicked in the Last Judgment.  The righteous will enter His heavenly "storehouse," while the wicked will be consumed in the fire of divine judgment.  It is a vision another John (St. John the Apostle) will see of the Final Judgment in the Book of Revelation (21:11-15).

The word "threshing floor" was another key word associated with both judgment and worship.  According to God's command, the Jerusalem Temple was built on a threshing floor on top of Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem (1 Chr 21:18; 22:1; 2 Chr 3:1).  In the Temple, built by Kind David's son Solomon, there was an outer courtyard where the Gentiles could come and receive instruction about the one true God.  God's invitation was for all the nations to come and worship at His Temple which was His great "threshing floor" where He separated the souls of the righteous from the souls of the wicked.  The judging of sin in the Jerusalem Temple prefigured the coming spiritual "harvest" after Christ's death and Resurrection when the souls of the righteous would follow Christ's Ascension to be gathered into God's storehouse in heaven.  In this the Final Age of Man, we are in the days of "the great harvest."  The "threshing floor" imagery is also an important symbol of judgment in the prophet Daniel's interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a statue and the destruction of four successive kingdoms that oppress the people of God (Dan 2:35).  Daniel prophesied a 5th kingdom set up by "the God of heaven."  It is "a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people" but which "shall stand forever" (Dan 2:44).  The Kingdom of the Church fulfills the prophecy of Daniel's 5th kingdom in which Jesus Christ rules as King of kings and over which His Vicar (the Pope) presides until His return (Parousia) to judge the faithfulness of His vassal people.

The question we must ask ourselves is have we been listening to the warnings in the liturgical readings?  Have we taken those warnings to heart, and are we ready for the return of Jesus Christ?  Are we prepared to be "winnowed" by the divine Judge when He will separate the righteous from the wicked in the Last Judgment (CCC 1038-41)?  It is then that the righteous find eternal happiness in God's storehouse that is the Kingdom of Heaven, and the wicked who neglected the poor and suffering and rejected Jesus and His gift of eternal salvation enter into eternal punishment (Mt 13:40-42; 25:31-46).  It is then Jesus said, "the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.  Whoever has ears ought to hear" (Mt 13:43).

Catechism References:
Isaiah 11:1-9 (CCC 672); 11:1-2 (CCC 712, 1831); 11:2 (CCC 436, 536, 1286)
Romans 15:5-5 (CCC 2627); 5:5 (CCC 520)
Matthew 3:2 (CCC 2816); 3:3 (CCC 523); 3:7-12 (CCC 678); 3:7 (CCC 535)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013