December 4, 2022
Revised Common Lectionary
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17 (see 2)
Contemplative monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote of this season, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” This sentence is packed, so before you read on, it’s worth a second look.
The first thing that struck me is Merton’s use of the word mystery to describe this time of waiting and preparation. He uses mystery to invite us into an experience that is so deep and rich that it is inexhaustible, far more than we can grasp or explain. Today’s Scripture readings can help us to move beyond approaching Advent merely as a warmup for Christmas.
The images and teachings in today’s Scripture readings call us to enter into the Advent mystery by reflecting on beginnings and endings. Consider the way that Isaiah, for example, proclaims God’s message that a “shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). There’s nothing that says “end” quite like a stump. It attests to a life destroyed—to a tree that once sprouted leaves and may even have borne fruit yet has now been cut down.
Isaiah is addressing a nation facing collapse and destruction and offers hope in this image of new life springing from dead wood. The royal line of David, now a stump, will come back to life in the messianic figure described in this passage—filled with God’s Spirit, ruling in righteousness, assuring equity for the poor and lowly. Isaiah portrays both sides of the Advent mystery—a painful ending with the promise of a new beginning.
Isaiah also speaks of an end beyond this new beginning, describing a whole new world that will come about when that new branch grows from the root of Jesse. There will be a new order of peace and reconciliation not only for humans but for all of creation. In this vision of “the peaceable kingdom,” predatory and domestic animals will live in harmony, and children will be safe. This is God’s promised ending for a world that is imbued with divine love.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we clearly hear the call to put an end to “all that is not Christ.” The Gospel writer introduces us to John the Baptist, who heralds the beginning of something completely new: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3:2). While John calls his hearers to a baptism of repentance, the One who will follow him “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11). The beginning of the new age is accompanied by the call to repent, to turn away from sin, and to put an end to the old ways. John’s voice sounds the beginning of the end.
The promise of this Advent season is that, even when we see only the stump of destruction and oppression, God can—and will—bring about the beginning of a new order. We are called even now to hope in God’s promise by putting an end to sinful ways, and then to “live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus” (Rom 15:5).
The words of Thomas Merton offer a profound insight into this season: “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” Now is the time to begin.
A Hymn for Today: “Wild and Lone the Prophet’s Voice”
Carl P. Daw, Jr., FHS, served as Executive Director of The Hymn Society from 1996 until 2009. An Episcopal priest and scholar, Daw is also a prolific hymn writer, who most recently completed three collections of contemporary paraphrases for all 150 Biblical psalms. In this text, based on today’s Gospel reading, he aptly describes the enduring value in the ministry of John the Baptist, expressing both the urgency of repentance and firm hope in God’s promised future. To hear this hymn sung to the David Ashley White’s tune LA GRANGE, click here.
Wild and lone the prophet’s voice
Echoes through the desert still,
Calling us to make a choice,
Bidding us to do God’s will:
“Turn from sin and be baptized:
Cleanse your heart and mind and soul.
Quitting all the sins you prized,
Yield your life to God’s control.”
“Bear the fruit repentance sows:
Lives of justice, truth, and love.
Trust no other claim than those;
Set your heart on things above.
Soon the Lord will come in pow’r,
Burning clean the threshing floor:
Then will flames the chaff devour;
Wheat alone shall fill God’s store.”
With such preaching stark and bold
John proclaimed salvation near,
And his timeless warnings hold
Words of hope to all who hear.
So we dare to journey on,
Led by faith through ways untrod,
Till we come at last like John
To behold the Lamb of God.
Text: Carl P. Daw, Jr., b. 1944, © Hope Publishing Company. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857
Tunes: ABERYSTWYTH, LA GRANGE
Image Credit: Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks, ca. 1834
“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.
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