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2nd SUNDAY IN ADVENT (Cycle C)

Readings:
Baruch 5:1-9
Psalm 126:1-6
Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11
Luke 3:1-6

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated 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).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread 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 the Readings: Let us make the Journey Together
The First Reading sets the theme of our readings for this second Sunday in Advent.  It begins with the description of the promised joyful return of the Jewish exiles of the Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, but then looks beyond that historical return to the journey of redeemed mankind to the heavenly New Jerusalem of Christ the King.  The Psalm Reading is one of the so-called "Songs of Ascent" that pilgrims sang on the journey up to the holy city of Jerusalem to celebrate the annual feasts and worship in the Jerusalem Temple.  In the hymn the pilgrims remember the joyful journey of the returning exiles to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity.  But this "Song of Ascent" the Jewish pilgrims sang as they made their journey to the holy city of Jerusalem to worship the One True God can also be seen as symbolic of the anticipation all the righteous have as they continue their earthly journeys with the hope that they may one day ascend to worship in the New Jerusalem Jesus has prepared for His redeemed people that St. John saw and described in the Book of Revelation (Rev 21:1-4).

In the Second Reading, St. Paul prays for the community of the church at Philippi.  He writes to praise them for their growth in charity that is characterized by love in action.  Such works, he tells them, are a supernatural virtue that includes wisdom in discerning the will of God for the lives of the members of the community that leads them to attaining greater knowledge of God and thereby greater unity with Him.  Such an increased unity prepares them (and us when we follow the same path) in holiness for "the Day of Christ" when Jesus will return in glory to receive His holy Church.

In the Gospel Reading we learn that St. John the Baptist is the mysterious, unidentified prophetic voice from the prophecy of the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah.  His is the voice that announces the coming of God among His people and the wondrous, all-encompassing change the Lord's coming will have on the world when all obstacles will be set aside and nothing will hinder His coming or the message of His gift of salvation to all mankind.

All of our readings for this Sunday remind us that we are making a journey through our exile in this life on our way to eternal salvation in the heavenly New Jerusalem.  The Season of Advent is a good time to reflect on that journey.  We are called during the Season of Advent to respond anew to St. John's prophetic voice.  We need to confess and repent those sins that separate us from God, to make straight our paths on the journey of salvation, and to pray that all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Is 40:5b; Lk 3:6).  We must take the time to prepare ourselves to relive, as a covenant people, the first Advent of the Messiah with the knowledge that we must prepare for the possibility that Christ may return again at any moment to judge the world and to receive the righteous into His everlasting glory in the New Jerusalem of the redeemed!

The First Reading Baruch 5:1-9 ~ The Joyful Journey to Jerusalem
1 Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever, 2 wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name.  3 For God will show all the earth your splendor, 4 you will be named by God forever the peace of justice, the glory of God's worship.  5 Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God.  5 Led away on foot by their enemies they left you but God will bring them back to you borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones.  7 For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level round, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.  8 The forests and every fragrant kind of tree have overshadowed Israel at God's command; for God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.

This book is ascribed to Baruch, the secretary of the 6th century BC prophet Jeremiah.  The purpose of the book is to impress upon later generations the circumstances of the Jewish exiles in Babylon and the necessary spirit of repentance that will bring the exile to an end and return the people to the Promised Land to worship in the holy city of Jerusalem.  The promised return to Jerusalem is the theme of this passage, but the passage looks beyond the physical return of the exiles in the 6th century BC to the journey of the earthly exiles of the righteous in this life to the heavenly Jerusalem that is the promise of the eternal future of the redeemed.

Baruch presents a picture of the returning exiles singing a song of joy as they make the journey to Jerusalem.  In verses 1-2 the returning exiles are told to cut off their garments of mourning.   Instead they are to figuratively put on the robe of righteousness and a crown of glory to display the divine name of Yahweh, like the sacred vestments and the head plate the Jewish high priest wore that bore the words "Sacred to Yahweh" (Ex 29:36-38; 39:30).  The return to Jerusalem will be a symbol that indicates a spiritual renewal of the covenant people.  And they will become a sign to other nations of the earth of the peace of God's justice and the glory that comes from worship of the One True God in the Jerusalem Temple (verses 3-4).

Verses 5-9 have an eschatological theme and promise a restoration that will extend beyond the Old Covenant people to embrace the whole world.  The passage has parallels in the books of the prophets (e.g., Is 40:4-5; 49:18-22; 60:1-4; Jer 30:15-22; etc.).  But there is a particularly strong link to St. John's vision of the Messianic Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation 21:1-4.  Christ is our peace and our justice; and He is God's glory promised in the passage.  He is the example of the piety with which we should ascend to our worship, and then we too will experience spiritual renewal that will lead to the Promised Land of Heaven.  St. Irenaeus (martyred 202 AD) wrote concerning the promise of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation: "No allegorical interpretation of this can be given: everything is true and clear and defined, and God desires that it be so for the glory of righteous men.  God raises man from the dead and when the Kingdom comes, man will be brought to life with incorruptibility and made strong, and he will welcome in the glory of the Father.  When everything has been renewed, he will truly live in the city of God" (Against Heresies, 5.35.2).

Responsorial Psalm 126:1-6 ~ Remembering when Yahweh brought back the Captives
The response is: "The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy."
 
1 When the LORD brought back the captives of Zion, we were like men dreaming.  2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with rejoicing.
Response:
Then they said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."  3 The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad indeed.
Response:
4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the torrents in the southern desert.  5 Those who sow in tears shall reap rejoicing.
Response:
6 Although they go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown, they shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.
Response:

This psalm is one of the "Songs of Ascent" that pilgrims sang on the journey up to the holy city of Jerusalem to worship Yahweh at the Jerusalem Temple, the only place where legitimate sacrifice and worship to Yahweh could be offered.  In the psalm, the joy of the return of the exiles from the Babylonian captivity is remembered in the pilgrim's hymn of praise and thanksgiving as they too make their journey to the holy city.  Verses 1-3 begin by describing the joy the pilgrims feel returning to Jerusalem, thanks to the work of the Lord.  Then in verses 4-6, they petition God to bring back all the exiles who profess belief in Yahweh, wherever they might be in the world, to share in their good fortune and the joy of their redemption. 

The gratitude and joy expressed for God's great works in the psalm is also found in the Virgin Mary's hymn of thanks and praise in the Magnificat: "For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name" (Lk 1:49).  The hope of the return of all who have been separated from God that is expressed in the psalm is fulfilled in the great work of God in the incarnation and resurrection of God the Son—He who came to bring all humanity the joy of restoration and the promise of the ascent to the new, heavenly Jerusalem. 

The Second Reading Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11 ~ The Day of Christ Jesus
Brothers and sisters: 4 I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, 5 because of your partnership for the Gospel from the first day until now.  6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.  [...].  8 God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.  9 And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, 10 to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

St. Paul is writing to the Christian community in Philippi in Macedonia.  It was the first Christian community Paul founded on his second missionary journey when he took his mission into Europe for the first time in the year 50/51 AD (Acts 16:12-40).  The letter demonstrates that St. Paul had a special affection for this community.  He may also have visited them twice during his third missionary journey (see Acts 20:1-2, 3:1).

St. Paul's joy in this Christian community is one of themes of his letter.  The very thought of them brings him joy because they have remained faithful to the Gospel from the day he founded their community (verses 4-5).  Joy, Paul will write in his letter to the Galatians, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22), and a Christian virtue intimately connected to works of charity (love in action) from which it is derived as a gift of a soul in the grip of divine grace (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2-2:23.4).  It is a gift that comes from union with God and acknowledgment of His loving providence toward His creation.  It is joy that gives Christians the experience of the peace of God in all a Christian's personal relationships and in all circumstances.  It is a work of grace God gives all Christians and which will come to completion on "the day of Jesus Christ" in His Second Advent (verse 6).  Notice that St. Paul mentions the promised return of Christ twice, in verses 6 ("the day of Christ Jesus") and 11 ("the day of Christ").  It is a future event that should always be on the mind of every Christian. 

8 God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
St. Paul so identifies with his Lord that he says he has the same affection for the Philippian community as Christ.  Supernatural love raises human affection to a higher level.  Paul's letter is an example of how the two kinds of love—human and divine—are intertwined in the Christian.  Pope Lt. Leo XIII taught: "Love of neighbor has to go hand in hand with charity and love of God, for all mankind shares in God's infinite goodness and are made in his image and likeness" (Sapientiae christianae, 51-52).

9 And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, 10 to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
In verses 9-11, Paul prays that their love will grow with knowledge and discernment.  The word "discernment" is from the Latin meaning "to distinguish between, determine, resolve, decide" (Modern Catholic Dictionary, page 111).  Discerning is a spiritual wisdom that enables the Christian to view events in life in a supernatural light and to therefore make decisions based on the will of God for the Christian's life.  It was a gift given to the Church at Pentecost when the Church was infused with the life of God the Holy Spirit.  It is why Christians no longer make decisions based on casting lots as was the practice in the Old Covenant Church before the coming of the Holy Spirit, but instead Christians pray for the will of God according to direction by the Holy Spirit (Ex 33:7; 1 Sam 14:41; Acts 1:26).

Paul's prayers for the community in this passage have had to do with growth in charity that is characterized by love in action towards members of the human family.  Since such works are a supernatural virtue, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: "...one needs to ask God to increase it, since God alone can bring that about in us" (Commentary on Philippians).  Growth in discerning the will of God for our lives means attaining greater knowledge of God and thereby greater unity with Him.  Such an increased unity prepares us in holiness for "the Day of Christ" when He will return in glory to receive His holy Church.

The Gospel of Luke 3:1-6 ~ Prepare the Way of the Lord
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.  3 He went throughout [the] whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.  5 Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.  The winding roads shall be made straight, 6 and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar...  The Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar died and was succeeded by his step-son and heir, Tiberius, on August 19th, 14 AD.  The first year of Tiberius reign is therefore began on August 19th, 14 AD.  The 15th year is then, as the ancient's counted without the concept of a zero place-value, August of 28 AD.  This is why Scripture records, and we still repeat, that Jesus was in the tomb for three days from Friday to Sunday (even parts of days or years counted), and why it is said a woman carried a child for ten months (Wis 7:1-2), and why, according to Scripture, Jesus suffered on the Cross for seven hours as the ancients counted from the third to the ninth hours Jewish time (from 9 AM to 3 PM; see Mk 25:15, 33-34, 37). 

Notice in verses 1-2 that St. Luke first situates the beginning of St. John the Baptist's ministry during the reign of the political leaders followed by the rule of the religious leaders.  The "Herod" referred to is Herod Antipas the son of Herod the Great and Malthace.  Philip is another son of Herod the Great by his wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem.  The title "tetrarch" in verse 1 literally meant "ruler of a quarter."  However, it came to be applied to the rule of a subordinate prince, as in the case of Herod's younger sons Herod Antipas and Herod Philip.  Abilene was a territory northwest of Damascus ruled by an ally of Rome named Lysanias (verse 1).  Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect of Judea, Samaria and Idumaea from 26-36 AD. 

St. Luke also situates St. John's ministry during the reign of Judea's religious leaders—the High Priest Annas (6-15 AD) and his successor as high priest who condemned Jesus, his son-in-law Joseph Caiaphas (18-37 AD).  God called Jesus' older cousin, St. John son of the priest Zechariah ( Lk 1:13, 36, 57), to begin his ministry in the same way God had called His other prophets ( Is 6:8; Jer 1:4; 2:1; Ez 1:2; 2:1-3; Ho 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jonah 1:1-2; etc.).  See the chart on the rulers of Judea

St. Luke further emphasizes the nature of John's divine call by quoting from the book of the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 40:3-5, a passage quoted in part by the other Gospel writers (Mt 3:3; Mk 1:3 and Jn 1:23) and which Luke relates to St. John's ministry.  Matthew quotes verse three from the Isaiah text (Mt 3:3) as does the Gospel of John (Jn 1:23): Only Luke quotes the entire passage of Isaiah 40:3-6, A voice of one crying out in the desert: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.  Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.  The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."

Through the prophet Isaiah, God promised a new Exodus—as in the first Exodus liberation when God came through the desert to rescue His people and to bring them to salvation (Dt 33:2; Ps 68:7-8).  The passage poetically announces that all obstacles will be set aside and nothing will hinder His coming or the message of His gift of salvation to all mankind.  The paths and roadways that must be made straight are not physical thoroughfares but the people's lives that must avoid the crooked paths of sin that have become obstacles/mountains that separate them from God.  They must come to the straight paths of righteousness that lead to salvation.  But the mysterious prophetic voice in the Isaiah 40:3-5 passage is not identified in the Book of Isaiah, even though the unidentified prophetic voice announces a turning point in salvation history in the coming of God among His people and the wondrous, all-encompassing change the Lord's coming will have on the world.    So who is the prophetic voice?

Notice the universal theme of the Isaiah passage that is similar to Simeon's prophecy in Luke 2:30-32 at Jesus' presentation at the Temple after His birth.  Isaiah says that "all flesh shall see the salvation of God", and compare that statement to Simeon's announcement as he held the Christ child in his arms: "your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel."  Simeon announces that Isaiah's prophecy has been fulfilled in the child he holds! 

The Isaiah passage relates to St. John the Baptist's mission and to Simeon's prophecy in Luke 2:30-32.  Inn quoting from the Isaiah passage, the Gospel writers all identify St. John the Baptist as the previously unidentified prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness of Judea.  His mission is to prepare the way for the coming of God the Redeemer Messiah.  He will fulfill that mission by calling the covenant people to repent their sins and turn back to God so they can receive the gift of the Gospel of salvation and be the bearers of the message of that gift (spoken of in Simeon's prophecy) to the peoples of the world—as Simeon praised God, saying, "... for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel" (Lk 2:30-32).

In our journey during the season of Advent, we respond anew to St. John's prophetic voice.  We are called to confess our sins, to repent those sins that separate us from God, to make straight our paths on the journey of salvation, and to pray that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.  We must take the time in our journey to prepare to relive together, as a covenant people, the first Advent of the Messiah and to prepare for the possibility that He may return again at any moment to receive us into His glory!

Catechism References:
Philippians 1:4-6 (CCC 2636); 1:9-11 (CCC 2632)
Luke 2:32 (CCC 713)
Luke 3:3 (CCC 535)
Isaiah 40:3-6 (CCC 719, 990)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2015