FR MICHAEL BIBLICAL IMAGERY
(Fr Michael Boakye Yeboah: Vice Rector of St Gregory Seminary, Kumasi-Ghana)
We live in a time when patience is understood to be a weakness and not a strength. Our society does not value waiting and patience. At times the way we work, treat our families, eat, and drive demonstrate we do not value patience. But in spirituality patience is a conditio sine qua non. If one does not cultivate patience (s)he cannot journey with God. A good example is the life of Abraham; though given a promise at an old age, he was patient in waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise against all odds. The readings of the third Sunday of Advent gives us lessons on patience especially the second reading.
The readings highlight the need for patient waiting for the “desert” to witness the prophesy laid on it. The desert figuratively stands for hopelessness, rejection and abandonment. The “desert” is given a promise by the prophet Isaiah that “goodness” is coming its way. That goodness will be ushered in by the arrival of the Messiah; and so, John the Baptist “iced the cake” for the imminent arrival of the Messiah with the “cry in the wilderness”. Though in prison, John sent messengers to the Lord for confirmation (at least for John’s mind to be at peace that his work is done). James in the second reading counsels for patience as each of us awaits the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises in our lives. Let us take a journey through the readings.
In the first reading Isaiah describes the transformation of the desert into fertile fields at the coming of God. “See, here is your God!” The desert is the world that God has not yet visited, but now he is on his way. Blind, deaf, lame, and mute is the man whom God has not yet visited, yet now his senses open wide and his limbs loosen up. The description of the liberation of Israel is achieved in lively language, with the most vulnerable being mentioned – the blind, the deaf, the lame and the dumb. All of them are to share fully in this liberation. But there is one thing that must be pointed out. The liberation here includes the “vengeance of the Lord” and his retribution. That is to be doubly underlined! What is clear is that the description of liberation has two dimensions. There is the deliverance of the weak, but also the vengeance against the wicked. There is a precise reason for this. The exile, from the perspective of the Old Testament writers, came about due to the disobedience to the Torah. The redemption must consist, therefore, of the Torah. The redemption must consist, therefore, of the restoration of obedience to the Torah, and thus the destruction of those who oppose it.
Going on to Matthew 11, the reading is very interesting. John is in prison, and his problem is he has heard about the works of Jesus. There is a problem. John’s preaching was hinged heavily on the question of the retribution of God. He had preached that the axe was already laid to the root of the tree. John’s anxiety seems to be linked to the fact that this dimension is totally missing from Jesus preaching. The portrait of the Messiah does not particularly match John’s expectation. The messiah is one who restores obedience to God’s commands and does so even with violence. This was clear from the reading.
Jesus’ response is interesting. He sends a response to John. But note! The response has seven statements!
- The blind see
- The lame walk
- Lepers are cleansed
- The deaf hear
- The dead are raised
- Good news is preached to the poor
- Blessed is he who does not lose faith in him
There is clearly something deliberate. First of all, there are seven statements. That is clear to all. Seven means complete or perfect. The message to John is that Jesus’ message is complete, lacking nothing! Seven is the Sabbath number. Instead of retribution, it has to do with the Jubilee, the same idea in Luke 4:16: It is the forgiveness of debts that matters! That is why there is no vengeance in Jesus’ message.
But even a closer look: Note that the first statement has to do with the blind seeing. Light is the first thing that God created in Genesis 1. It is a new creation. A new start for all. The first six statements consist of actions in the favor of man, just like God worked for six days. The seventh is a blessing just like God rested and blessed the seventh day (Genesis 2:3). But the blessing is interesting. This is the blessing known as the MAKARIOS in Greek. It is the same word used in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the blessing of the person who keeps the Torah perfectly. Jesus is indicating that his actions completely fulfil the Torah. Nothing is left out. Blessed is the person who understands this.
Another dimension to today’s gospel is how Jesus calms John’s disquiet by showing him that the prophecy is being fulfilled in himself, in gentle miracles that still call for trusting faith: “Blessed is the man who finds no stumbling block in me.” Perhaps the darkness that burdens John as a witness to Christ is the very reason why Jesus praises him to the crowd: he really is what he understood himself to be, the messenger sent in advance of Jesus to prepare the way. John referred to himself as a mere voice in the wilderness ringing out the marvel of the coming One. The least among those belonging to the coming Kingdom is greater than John, who assessed himself as belonging to the Old Covenant, yet, as “friend of the Bridegroom” he is showered with the light of new grace as he humbly makes way for Christ. On icons he joins Mary the Mother, who also comes from the Old Covenant yet steps across into the New Covenant, the two of them at the right and left hand of the world’s Judge.
But the return to God at his approach to us requires patient waiting, as James insists in the second reading. We are given the example of a farmer and the completely ordinary attitude his occupation requires. He awaits the fruit of the earth that grows of its own accord for him, produce that grows in a manner the farmer does not understand – according to one of Jesus’ parable (Mk 4:27). The farmer does not try to conjure up the rain, rather “he waits patiently until the soil receives the winter and spring rains.” James realizes that Christian patience is no leisurely waiting, realizes that it requires “strengthened hearts” – not through discipline for discipline’s sake but “because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” This is a patience that does not hurry anything, does not artificially accelerate things, but rather, in faith, faces up to everything God has decreed (cf. Isaiah 28:16). If we know that “the judge is at the gate” we will have no right to throw the gate open. Wisely James refers impatient Christians who could not wait for the Lord’s coming back to the prophets and their steady patience. One could just as properly point to Mary’s patience as she awaited the Advent. A pregnant woman can and ought not hasten anything. The Church too is pregnant, but she does not know when she will give birth. Let’s be patient and wait.