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3rd SUNDAY IN ADVENT (Cycle B)

Readings:
Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11
Luke 1:46-50, 53-54
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

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 3rd Sunday in Advent is Gaudete [gow-DAY-tay] Sunday.  In Latin the word gaudete means "rejoice."  The title for the 3rd Sunday in Advent comes from the first Latin word in the entrance antiphon which begins: "Rejoice in the Lord always."  The phrase is from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians, and the passage tells us why we should rejoice: "Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I say, rejoice!  The Lord is near!" (Phil 4:4-5).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Rejoice for the Bearer of Good News has Come!
The First Reading speaks of God's divine messenger, the "anointed one," in Hebrew mashiach (translated "messiah" in English and in Greek christos).  A "Messiah" is a consecrated agent and messenger of God.  Isaiah proclaims that God will anoint this future Messiah to fulfill a dual mission as both a messenger and a comforter.  As God's divine messenger, he brings "glad tidings" like a king's ambassador in announcing victory in a time of war and the redemption and release of prisoners.  The prophecy foretells a Messiah who will come to announce a new age for the people of God. He will establish a new world order where oppression will no longer reign and where accord and well-being will prevail for people of all nations.  It is a prophecy that Jesus announced fulfilled in Him to His Synagogue congregation at Nazareth (Lk 4:17-21). 

The Responsorial Psalm passage is from the Virgin Mary's canticle of joy.  Mary begins her hymn of praise by calling God her savior as the source of her salvation.  Mary gives a prophecy for future generations and her relationship to them prompted by the Holy Spirit, saying all generations will call her blessed.  Her prophecy requires action on the part of Christians.  It is our obligation to honor Mary just as her Son honored her according to the Law and because of His love for her.  To honor one's parents is the only one of the Ten Commandments that carries a promise (see Ex 20:12).  When Jesus gave Mary into the care of the beloved disciple as his mother at the foot of the cross, she became the mother of every disciple of Christ Jesus!

The Second Reading is from St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians in which he tells us why those who belong to the divine Messiah, Jesus Christ, should rejoice, giving thanks and praise to God for our deliverance.  It is the deliverance promised to us by Isaiah's oracle in the First Reading.  Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, He delivered us from bondage and captivity: bondage to sin and captivity from the darkness of the grave.

St. John the Baptist announced the coming of Isaiah's promised Messiah (Mt 3:1-3; Mk 1:1-8; Lk 3:1-5), and for the past two weeks, our Gospel readings have focused on St. John the Baptist.  In this week's Gospel Reading, we learn more about his mission.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke identify him as the prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness prophesied in Isaiah 40:3-4 (last Sunday's First Reading and Gospel Reading).  His mission was preparing the covenant people for the coming of the promised Redeemer-Messiah through a baptism of repentance. 

St. John's mission should remind us that Advent is a season of preparation.  We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility of the coming of God the Son in His Second Advent, knowing that His return can happen at any moment.  If we prepare by cleansing our souls in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we will be ready, and we can rejoice because, as this Sunday's antiphon announces, "The Lord is near!" (Phil 4:5).

The First Reading Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11 ~ Rejoice in God's Glad Tidings
1 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, 2 to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God. [...] 10 I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels.  11 As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all nations.

In this passage, the prophet Isaiah delivers an oracle about a future messenger who is God's "anointed" ("messiah"), coming to proclaim a year of divine favor (verses 1-2).  A divine "anointing" was an outpouring of God's spirit upon an individual called to serve as God's agent to the covenant people.  God will anoint this future Messiah to fulfill a dual mission as both a messenger and a comforter.  As God's divine messenger, he brings "glad tidings" like a king's ambassador in announcing victory in a time of war and the redemption and release of prisoners.  His message also proclaims a new world order where there will no longer be any oppression and where accord and well-being will prevail for people of all nations. 

The "year of favor from the LORD [Yahweh]" in verse 2 recalls God's command for Israel to keep a "Sabbath year" every seventh year and a "Jubilee year" every fiftieth year (Ex 21:2-11; Lev 25:8-19; Jer 34:14; Ez 46:17).  These were years when the Israelites were to extend forgiveness to their fellow Israelites in the same way God showed them His forgiveness and mercy.  God commanded them to forgive debts, free Israelite slaves, and, in a Jubilee year, returning any sold land to its original tribal family.  In the oracle, the divine year of grace will offer a similar deliverance from oppression and forgiveness but not just to Israelites. 

Notice in verse 2 that this day of God's favor is also a "day of vindication" because on that day both the righteous and the wicked will receive justice.  God's messenger/messiah is more than an ordinary prophet because he is one who possesses the fullness of God's Spirit in himself to deliver God's blessings to Israel and all humanity.  The prophet compares the joy of receiving God's gift of deliverance to a bridegroom's joy in his bride and a farmer's joy in reaping a rich harvest (verses 10b-11).

When Jesus visited His hometown of Nazareth on the Sabbath in the Gospel of Luke, He chose to read this prophecy from the scroll of Isaiah: He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord" (Lk 4:17-19; quoting LXX Is 61:1-2).  Then, Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.  He said to them, "Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing."  With this announcement, Jesus proclaimed Himself God's anointed messenger, the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah.  The "glad tidings" He brings is the "good news" (Gospel) of the coming of the Kingdom of God (Mt 5:17; Mk 1:15), and the liberation He promises is the liberation of humanity from bondage to sin and the captivity of death.

Responsorial: Luke 1:46-50, 53-54 ~ Rejoice in God's Mighty Works
Response: "My soul rejoices in my God."

46 And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; 47 my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked upon his lowly servant.  From this day all generations shall call me blessed:
Response:
49 the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.  50 He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
Response:
53 He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.  54 He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy."
Response:

Today's responsorial psalm is from the Virgin Mary's beautiful canticle of praise which we call "the Magnificat."  It is Mary's response to her kinswoman Elizabeth's exclamation of praise for Mary's belief in God and the honor God has shown her as "the mother of the Lord" in Luke 1:45.  Some scholars have concluded that Mary's Magnificat, like the Benedictus of Zechariah (Lk 1:68-79), was an early Aramaic Jewish-Christian hymn that predates Luke's Gospel.  Other scholars disagree, citing the numerous references to the Greek Septuagint Old Testament passages within the two chants (Fr. Raymond Brown, The Birth of Jesus, pages 350-55 and the opposing view from Fr. Raymond Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, page 361).  One test to support the second theory is how easily the Greek translates into Hebrew or Aramaic.

Mary's hymn of praise divides into three parts, two of which are in our reading:

  1. Her praise for what God has done for her (verses 46b-49).
  2. Her praise for God's mercy to the poor and disadvantaged (verses 50-53).
  3. Her praise for God's faithfulness to Abraham's descendants, the nation of Israel (verses 54-55).

46 And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; 47 my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...
Mary begins by calling God her Savior.  The word "Lord," Kyrios in Greek, is understood to be a substitute for God's Holy Name, Yahweh.  Kyrois is the word used consistently in the Greek Septuagint translation to replace the divine Name, YHWH.  God is the source of Mary's blessing and her salvation.  The expression "rejoices in God my Savior" is an echo of the hymn of praise of another holy woman blessed with a child by God's intervention in the prophet Samuel's mother Hannah's hymn of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1.

In verse 48, Mary says: 48 for he has looked upon his lowly servant.  From this day all generations shall call me blessed...
The NJB, which is closer to the original Greek translation, has "he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant," which is an echo of Habakkuk 3:18.  Her humble station is the first reason for Mary's praise.  She declares that because of God's Divine plan for her life and her willingness to submit to that plan, all generations will pronounce a beatitude over her (the verb makariousin, in the future tense, reflects the adjective makaria that Elizabeth used in verse 45; Fr. Fitzmyer, The Gospel of Luke, page 367).

Mary utters the prophecy of future generations and her relationship to them prompted by the Holy Spirit.  The prophecy, spoken by Mary under the influence of the Holy Spirit, requires action on the part of Christians.  It is our obligation to honor Mary just as her Son honored her according to the Law and because of His love for her.  To honor one's parents is the only one of the Ten Commandments that carries a promise (see Ex 20:12).  When Jesus gave Mary into the care of the beloved disciple as his mother at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:26-27), she became the mother of every beloved disciple of Christ Jesus (also see Rev 12:17).

49 the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.  50 He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
Verse 49 is the second reason for Mary's praise.  She uses the same title for God that is found in the "daughter of Zion" passage in Zephaniah 3:17 (LXX) and Psalms 89:9 (LXX).  Notice in verses 49-50 that Mary names three attributes of God: His might, holiness and mercy.  That God "has done great things" for her is an echo of Deuteronomy 10:21 in which God promises the children of Israel He will do "great things." These are great saving acts for the covenant people of every generation if they remain loyal, obedient, and reverently fear offending God.  Mary sees this promise fulfilled personally for her in what God has done in making her the mother of the Redeemer-Messiah.  It is a "great thing" that will not only bring about her salvation but the salvation of her people (also see Dt 11:7 and Judg 2:7). 

and holy is his Name.  50 He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
"Holy is his name" or "His name is holy" refers to God's divine Name YHWH (translated with vowels, Yahweh).  It is an echo of Psalms 119:9 while "His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him" is an echo of Psalms 103:17.  The ancients believed  a name expressed the total essence of a person, or in this case of God who is the great "I AM" and about which God told Moses "This is my name forever; this is my title for all generations" (see Ex 3:15).  The first person to use the Divine Name was the first woman, Eve, in Genesis 4:1.

When Mary speaks of fear of the Lord in verse 50, something God urges repeatedly in Scripture (i.e., Ex 18:21; Lev 25:17, 36, 43; Dt 6:13, 24; 8:6; 10:12, 20), she uses a phrase repeated almost verbatim from Ps 103:17.  She is not speaking of servile fear but reverence toward God in recognizing His sovereignty and fear of offending God.  These are the positive aspects of keeping on the path to righteousness which leads to salvation.  Mary's hymn that began in praise for what God has done for her has now expanded to what God has done for her people.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 
The wealthy are the arrogant of mind and heart who are the enemies of the poor and humble, and, therefore, they are the enemies of God (see Is 2:12, 17; 4:15; 13:11; Wis 3:10-11; etc.).  Mary is speaking of the promise of God's ultimate justice for those who have suffered and for those who have caused the suffering.  She includes a quote from Psalms 107:9 ~ For he satisfied the thirsty, filled the hungry with good things.  In His divine justice, God will judge men and women according to their works (Mt 25:31-46; Lk 6:20-25).  The rich who abused the use of their material gifts/blessings will experience a reversal of fortune in that they will be "sent away empty."

54 He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy.
Mary's concluding statement contains echoes of the promises of Isaiah 41:8-9 from the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament (it was the common translation used in Mary's time) as well as Psalms 98:3 and Micah 7:20.

Mary understands that she is to bear the Redeemer-Messiah who is the legitimate heir of King David prophesied to be born of a virgin (Is 7:14).  Her Son will not only fulfill the promise of the Davidic covenant that the throne of David's kingdom will endure forever in a Davidic heir (2 Sam 7:11b-16; 23:5; 2 Chr 13:5; Ps 89:3-4, 28-29; Sir 45:25; 47:11/13), but He will also fulfill the three-fold covenant made to Abraham.  One of those promises was of a world-wide blessing (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14).  Her son will fulfill the promises of the covenants and God's promise not to abandon His covenant people.  All those blessing will be fulfilled in Christ Jesus, son of David, son of Mary, as St. Paul declares (Gal 3:8-9, 25-29).

Mary's beautiful hymn of praise illuminates her humility and faith; this is, of course, the way God created her.  In the Catechism citation 722, the Church teaches: "The Holy Spirit prepared Mary by his grace.  It was fitting that the mother of him in whom 'the whole fullness of deity dwells, bodily, should herself be full of grace.'  She was, by sheer grace, conceived without sin as the most humble of creatures, the most capable of welcoming the inexpressible gift of the Almighty.  It was quite correct for the angel Gabriel to greet her as 'Daughter of Zion: Rejoice.'  It is the thanksgiving of the whole People of God, and thus of the Church, which Mary in her canticle lifts up to the Father in the Holy Spirit while carrying within her the eternal Son."

The Second Reading 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 ~ The Christian's Reason to Rejoice
16 Rejoice always.  17 Pray without ceasing.  18 In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.  19 Do not quench the Spirit.  20 Do not despise prophetic utterances.  21 Test everything; retain what is good.  22 Refrain from every kind of evil.  23 May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  24 The one who calls you is faithful and he will also accomplish it. 

St. Paul explains how Christians should conduct themselves while waiting for the Second Advent of the Lord Jesus Christ.  In this season of the year, it is not only good advice concerning waiting for Jesus' promised return, but it is good advice for all of us who are making ourselves ready for the event of the Christ-mass that celebrates the birth of the Redeemer-Messiah.

In verses 16-19, St. Paul gives us the plan for a fulfilled Christian life: be filled with joy, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances even in the midst of suffering.  When a Christian allows circumstances that cause sadness to overwhelm him, he is demonstrating a lack of faith and trust in God's plan for his life.  We can offer every aspect of our lives, even suffering, to God for our good and the good of others when we pray in accord with God's will for our lives and do not "quench the Spirit" (verse 19) by fighting against God's plan.

20 Do not despise prophetic utterances.  21 Test everything; retain what is good.  22 Refrain from every kind of evil. 
The Holy Spirit grants the charism of the gift of prophecy.  New Testament prophets were Christians to whom God gave special graces to instruct, encourage, console, and correct the faithful.  But Paul warns not to simply accept someone who claims to have spiritual gifts without discerning the quality of their works.  If you take the time to test them, you will not be misled into evil by a false teacher who teaches contrary to the wisdom of the Church (verse 21).

23 May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  24 The one who calls you is faithful and he will also accomplish it. 
St. Paul prays for the continuing sanctification of the community at Thessalonica.  He speaks of the three aspects that compose a well-ordered person: "spirit, soul, and body" (verse 23).  The "body" is our temporal, material self that decays at death.  The "soul" refers to the spiritually immortal part of a person that animates the body.  The soul is individually created by God for each person and infused into the body at the time of conception when God creates the soul in respect to its body.  Separation from its body only occurs in physical death.  Since the soul was created for a particular body, it is incomplete without its body.  This is why our bodies and souls will be reunited in Jesus' Second Advent in the great Resurrection of the dead.

The "spirit" St. Paul refers to is the gift of the infusion of the very life of God that we receive in Christian baptism.  It is the "spirit" of God dwelling in us that makes us children in the family of God and unlike non-baptized humans who are still children in the family of Adam.  Since it is God's desire that all mankind come to salvation, a perfectly ordered person in this earthly life must possess all three: spirit, soul, and body in a state of grace while waiting for "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (verse 23).  God, "one who calls" us, "is faithful" and we can have confidence that "He will accomplish"/will bring about the return of the Christ as has been promised (verse 24).

The Gospel of John 1:6-8, 19-28 ~ St. John the Baptist: Announces the coming of the Messiah
6 A man named John was sent from God.  7 He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  8 He was not the light but came to testify to the light.
19 And this is the testimony of John.  When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, "I am not the Christ [Christos = Messiah]."  21 So they asked him, "What are you then?  Are you Elijah?"  And he said, "I am not."  "Are you the Prophet?"  He answered, "No."  22 So they said to him, "Who are you so we can give an answer to those who sent us?  What do you have to say for yourself?"  23 He said:  "I am 'the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord,' as Isaiah the prophet said."  24 Some Pharisees were also sent.  25 They asked him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?"  26 John answered them, "I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie."  28 This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Notice the choice of words in verse 6: "sent by God."  It is exactly the same in the Greek, the original language of the New Testament.  The verb "sent" in Greek is apostello.  The verb carries the sense of sending an envoy with a special commission.  It is the verb form of the noun that Jesus will use to signify the twelve men He ordained as the spiritual fathers of the New Israel that is His Kingdom of the New Covenant Church: the Apostles (apostolos in Greek).

All of God's holy prophets sent as God's messengers before the coming of the Word were not the true Light; they were instead the reflection of the Light to come.  They prepared the world by proclaiming (witnessing to) the coming of the true Light, the Davidic Messiah.  The more literal translation from the Greek is: "he came for witness [martyria] to bear witness [martyreo]..." Martyria (also spelled marturia) is a noun and means "witness bearer" while martyreo (also spelled martureo) is a verb denoting "to bear witness." Our English word "martyr," meaning "one who bears witness by his death," comes from the root for these words which is martyus/witness.

Yehohanan ben Zechariah (John son of Zechariah), was the son of a chief priest and therefore a chief priest himself.  St. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets.  According to the Law, a chief priest served as a deacon for 5 years from the age of 25-30.  In his 30th year he assumed his full duties in the hereditary priesthood of the descendants of Moses' brother Aaron (see Num 4:3 and 8:23).  St. John's mother, Elizabeth, was the Virgin Mary's kinswoman. Most Bible translations render this kinship word as "cousin."  The Greek word is sugenes [pronounced su-gen-ace] in Greek is literally "kinswoman or relative."  The word for "cousin" in Greek is anepsios [pronounced ah-nep-see-os].  This is not to say that Elizabeth was not a "cousin" of Mary, but perhaps the inspired writer used the more general term sugenes to indicate that she was not a "cousin" of the first degree.  Elizabeth was much older than Mary; considering how early girls married, she was perhaps older by two generations.

Both of St. John's parents were descendants of the hereditary priesthood.  Zechariah traced his descent from Abijah (or Abia, 8th of the 24 divisions or courses of the Temple priesthood (see 1Chr 24:10), and Elizabeth traced her lineage all the way back to the first high priest, Aaron, brother of Moses.  It should be noted that ultimately all chief priests could trace their line back to Aaron and his sons because, according to the Law, the priesthood belonged to the descendants of Aaron.  The importance of Luke's account that Elizabeth was the daughter of a chief priest is that John's hereditary claim to the priesthood was impeccable.

19 This is the testimony [martyria] of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?'
The theme from the Prologue to the Gospel of John is that God sent John the Baptist to witness to the light (Jn 1:6-7).  Verses 20-27 contain his testimony/witness. See CCC# 717

The Priests from the Temple in Jerusalem and the Levites came to question John.  The Levites were a lower degree of the ministerial priesthood who served as teachers of the Law and performed the assigned functions in the Temple—much like a deacon in the Catholic Church (see Numbers 3:11-13; 18:1-7).  They came to demand an answer to the question: "Who are you?"  These men are the religious authorities of the people of God.  The prophetic symbolism associated with John's ministry as too strong to ignore.  There was, for example, his connection to the prophecies of the prophets Isaiah of one coming out of the wilderness and to Malachi that the coming of the Messiah was to be announced by one like the prophet Elijah.  John dressed like Elijah.  The religious authorities wanted to see for themselves what the "signs" meant.  The coming of the Messiah was, in the 1st century AD, a national expectation.  To answer the question whether this was the time for the fulfillment of the prophecies, this delegation, which probably came from the Sanhedrin (the supreme council of the Jews), was sent to get an answer. 

20 he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, "I am not the Christ [Christos = Messiah]."
It is curious how John answers this official delegation.  He uses a triple combination of positive and negative clauses; the literal translation is "he avowed and did not deny, and avowed..."
#1 = positive [he admitted];
#2 = negative [did not deny];
#3 = positive [but admitted].
This may count as a significant 3 combination, which in Scripture always indicates that the next phrase or event is of great theological importance in God's divine plan for man's salvation. What did he "admit" or declare?  He declared that he is not the Messiah (Christ).  Some scholars suggest that the "I" is emphatic indicating that he is not but another is when he says, "I am not the Christ."  

21 So they asked him [literally = so they questioned him further], "What are you then?  Are you Elijah?"  And he said, "I am not."  "Are you the Prophet?"  He answered, "No." 
The more literal translation is They questioned him further (look for a repeat of this phrase).  They asked John if he was Elijah because everything about John fit the prophecies about the return of Elijah:

For some scholars it is a problem that John the Baptist does not seem to identify himself as Elijah when this connection seems clear in other passages of the Gospels: 

There is no single answer as to why John denies that he is the prophet Elijah, but given the evidence we can speculate.  The prophecy of the angel Gabriel to John's father Zechariah was that his son would come in the "spirit and power of Elijah" (Lk 1:17) and not as Elijah himself.  Some possible answers to the dilemma:

  1. Perhaps sensing the hostility of the delegation, John doesn't want to "play his hand" quite yet by claiming he has come in fulfillment of the prophecy concerning Elijah.  They could charge him with blasphemy or for inciting a riot against the Romans who held political control of Judea.
  2. Perhaps John is denying that he is Elijah because he is discerning that they are asking if he is the reincarnation of Elijah.  Reincarnation was not consistent with Old Covenant beliefs nor is it acceptable in Christian faith.  Divine judgment follows physical death (Heb 9:27).  The claim of reincarnation would be considered blasphemy. John was not the reincarnation of Elijah any more that Elijah's successor Elisha was the reincarnation of his master.  Elisha received the fullness of the spirit of prophecy that God placed on His servant Elijah.  John received this same anointing of the spirit, and it is in that sense that he is Elijah's successor.  Pope Gregory the Great (Patrologia Laitna  76:1100) reconciles this apparent discrepancy by teaching that John was not Elijah but he exercised toward Jesus the function of Elijah by preparing his way.
  3. Some Bible scholars suggest that perhaps John does not fully realize his prophetic role.  Scholars who believe this is the cause for John's denial point out that in Matthew chapter 11, when John is imprisoned and awaiting his execution, that he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?" Their point is that this passage indicates John does not completely understand God's plan.  But other scholars suggest it was John's disciples and not John who were confused, and he sent them to Jesus for Jesus to confirm His identity.

22 So they said to him, "Who are you so we can give an answer to those who sent us?  What do you have to say for yourself?"
They want to know if he is "the Prophet" of Deuteronomy 18:18-20.  In Acts 3:22-24, the Apostle Peter identifies Jesus as the Prophet like Moses when he quotes the Deuteronomy passage, saying "Moses, for example, said 'From among your brothers the Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me; you will listen to whatever he tells you.  Anyone who refuses to listen to that prophet shall be cut off from the people.'  In fact, all the prophets that have ever spoken, from Samuel onwards, have predicted these days." Jesus is not only the new Joshua, who will lead God's people into the Promised Land of heaven, but He is also the new Moses, the Lawgiver and covenant mediator (see Heb 3:5-6; 7:11-19; 8:6). 

Did you notice that in their questions to John that the Priests connect the prophecies concerning Elijah and the prophet-like-Moses passage?  You can appreciate how the Exodus symbolism and Elijah prophecies are foremost in the minds the common people and the religious authority.  These two great men of God summed up salvation history (at that point in time) with Moses representing the Law and Elijah the prophets of God.  When John denies that he is the Prophet, he is once again denying that he is the Messiah, although it does not seem to be completely clear if 1st century Jews understood that the Prophet and the Messiah were one individual or two (see Jn 1:24-25).  When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and some people in the crowd asked, "Who is this?" others responded, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee" (Mt 21:10-11).

There are two other events/passages in the New Testament where Elijah and Moses will come together.  The first is the Mount of Transfiguration experience (Mt 17:3; Mk 9:4; Lk 9:30), and the second appearance is the one connected to the two witnesses in Revelation 11:3-6 who represent the Law and the Prophets (Moses and Elijah) with the power to turn water into blood (Moses in Ex 6:17-19) and with the power to stop the rain (Elijah in 1 Kng 17:1).

23 He said:  "I am 'the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord,' as Isaiah the prophet said."
This Old Testament quote is from the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah 40:1-11.  John identifies himself as the prophetic and preparatory voice of Isaiah 40:3. The passage originally prophesizes the forgiveness of the tribes Israel and their return from exile.  Isaiah prophesied the destruction of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel (722 BC), which took place in his lifetime, and the future destruction of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which would be fulfilled 135 years later (587/6 BC).  Isaiah's message of hope promises God's forgiveness and that nothing will prevent the covenant people's return to their homeland, using the symbolic language that the hills will be leveled and the valleys filled in to prepare an eschatological superhighway for God's people.  This prophecy was fulfilled with the return of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin to the land of Judah after completion of the seventy years of the Babylonian exile.  However, there is no recorded of return of the ten northern tribes, but there obviously was a small return to the region of the Galilee.  Now John is to prepare a road, not for God's people to return to the land of Israel, but for God to come to His people.  John's call for repentance and his baptism of ritual cleansing of the multitude in along the banks of the Jordan River was opening up the hearts of men, leveling their pride, filling in their emptiness, and preparing them to receive the Messiah.  See CCC# 719-20

24 Some Pharisees were also sent.  25 They asked him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?" 
In the Greek text, verse 24 reads: the Pharisees questioned him further; it is a repeat of verse 21. This seems to be a second group of emissaries from the Sanhedrin.  The first group was composed of chief priests and Levites.  Perhaps they went back to Jerusalem to report on John's responses to their questions, and now the Sanhedrin sent the "big guns," the theologians and leaders in the Sanhedrin (Jewish high court), to question John again.  Considering John's previous answers, they want justification for his baptism of repentance.  If John the Baptist is not claiming any eschatological role, why is he performing an eschatological action like ritual immersion? 

26 John answered the, "I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie." 
To undo the strap of his sandal is a slave's task.
This is a phrase repeated in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:7 & Lk 3:16) except in those passages it is expressed in the plural as "sandals."  In his answer, John is making a distinction between his baptism and the baptism that will be offered by Jesus (see Jn 1:33; Mt 3:11; Mk 1:7-8; Lk 3:16).  John baptizes with water for repentance.  John is not forgiving sins but is instead preparing the people for a future forgiveness that will come through Christ's sacrifice.  The difference is that Jesus is to baptize with the Spirit of God (Holy Spirit) and with fire.  This distinction between the two types of baptism is common to all four Gospels, and it is a theological break from traditional Old Covenant belief.  In Hebrew thought, baptism or ritual cleansing with water and with a holy spirit came together.  This distinction between the Old Covenant concept and the New Covenant reality is also emphasized in Acts 19:1-6 where some disciples of John who were baptized with John's baptism are encountered by the Apostles and it is discovered they have not received "the Spirit" of God  This distinction between ritual cleansing with water and a new kind of spiritual blessing recalls the prophecy of the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36:25-26: I shall pour [sprinkle] clean water over you and you will be cleansed; I shall cleanse you of all your filth and of all your foul idols.  I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you... (NJB).

28 This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
John closes this passage with a geographic reference for the location of John's ritual of spiritual purification.  "The far side" indicates the eastern shore of the river.  This is not the same Bethany as the town of Lazarus and his sisters on the Mt. of Olives near Jerusalem.  Bethany means "place [or house] of grace."  Some ancient texts list the place-name as Bethabara, "place of the crossing."  Since no town of this name from the 1st century AD has ever been discovered in any text or any archaeological site, most scholars believe this name indicates that this was the site where the children of Israel crossed the Jordan River when they first entered the Promised Land (Josh 3:14-17). 

In the 3rd century the early Church Father, Origen, who was living in Palestine, agreed with this interpretation.  In his opinion the site of St. John's ritual purification and Jesus' baptism was the "place of the crossing" that had become a "place of grace" [Bethany] and that John 1:28 should read "Bethabara."  An ancient 6th century AD mosaic map called the Madaba map locates Bethabara but it is across the River on the western side.  Of course, a river crossing would have two sides (entering and exiting the river), so this map tends to confirm the theory that this is the site of that historic crossing as well as the site of Jesus' baptism. We also know from the diaries of ancient pilgrims that Jesus' baptism was commemorated on both sides of the Jordan River and that there were churches built on both sides. In 1999, the ruins of two Byzantine churches were discovered on the east and west sides of the River about 5 miles north of the Dead Sea.  At this site the archaeologists also found coins and pottery dating to the 1st century AD from the time of John the Baptist, perhaps dropped by the crowds awaiting John's baptism. 

The churches also mark the site of Elijah's crossing the Jordan River to the east side where he was assumed into heaven (2 Kng 2:6-11).  The site of St. John's ritual purification in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, where Joshua (Yahshua) led the children of Israel across the river into the Promised Land (Josh 3:14-17) and the same location where the prophet whose power and spirit empowered him was assumed into heaven, was a fitting location for St. John the Baptist's ministry.  There he brought about the baptism of the new Joshua (Jesus and Joshua bore the same name in Hebrew) whose mission was to free mankind from captivity to sin and death and to lead the people of God into the Promised Land of Heaven.

Catechism References:
Isaiah 61:1-2 (CCC 714) 61:1 (CCC 436, 695, 716, 1286)
Luke 1:46-49 (CCC 2097) 1:48 (CCC 148, 971, 2676); 1:49 (CCC 273, 2599, 2807, 2827); 1:50 (CCC 2465), 1:54 (CCC 706)
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (CCC 2633), 5:17 (CCC 1174, 2742, 2757), 5:18 (CCC2638, 2648); 5:19 (CCC 696); 5:23 (CCC 367)
John 1:6 (CCC 717); 1:7 (CCC 719); 1:19 (CCC 575, 613); 1:23 (CCC 719)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright ©2014