In the middle of Advent, we pause for a moment of rejoicing. This is not a period of rest taken during a long journey. It is more like a short stop at a scenic view, where we stand in awe of the spectacular panorama before us. Advent is a liturgical journey toward Christmas, the feast that celebrates God’s presence as one of us. The season is a preparation for the re-enactment of our salvation, which begins with the Incarnation and carries us through to eschatological fulfillment. Today, from our vantage point, we get a glimpse of that fulfillment. It is a scene of peace and healing. We know that when we meet the reality that we perceive here only from afar, we will be confronted by challenges and hardships. But today we are granted a preview of the fulfillment that lies in store for us.
Both the first reading and the Gospel passage promise restoration and new life. In fact, scholars maintain that the Gospel writer had the Isaian passage in mind when describing the fruits of Jesus’ ministry. The people of God, both at the time of the prophet and during the early Christian period, believed that sin brought disorder into the world. This disorder manifested itself both in natural disasters and in human suffering. They also believed that God promised there would be a time in the future when the world would be put right again. This promise was the ground of their eschatological hope. Isaiah envisions this future time. Jesus claims it has already dawned, and he points to his deeds as evidence of it.
The poetry of Isaiah is strikingly beautiful. Only one who has seen barren land come to life can appreciate the prophet’s depiction of the transformation of the parched desert and treeless steppe. Not only will nature be rejuvenated, but humans too will be restored to full life. The examples in the text of people who suffer forms of physical impairment represent the entire human race, for we are all in some way impaired, and each of us longs for healing. These scenes of burgeoning life and restoration are harbingers of the time of fulfillment promised by God.
In the Gospel, before Jesus launches into praise of John the Baptist, he announces that the time of fulfillment is unfolding before the eyes of his hearers. He has inaugurated this long-awaited era; he has begun the restoration; the world is being transformed; and human beings are experiencing the healing power of God.
I wonder how many of those who heard Jesus believed his words. Did they realize that their world was being transformed before their eyes? But then, do we? Many of us think that our world is getting worse, not better. If we believe at all that transformation will happen, we wait for God to accomplish it. We do not always realize that God works this transformation through us. We may not realize that we are like the farmers described in the Letter of James. They must wait for God’s gift of rain, but at the same time they labor day and night, working the land and readying it for new life. God brings the land to life through them. James’s exhortation could be addressed to us: “You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm.”
Each year on the Third Sunday of Advent, we turn our gaze to the figure of John the Baptist. In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus explaining the role that John plays in God’s plan of salvation. He does not call to mind the Isaian passage of the voice crying in the wilderness (Is 40:3). Instead he quotes Malachi, the prophet who called for repentance and reform. This prophet spoke of a messenger who would prepare the way of the Lord (Mal 3:1). Jesus declares that John is that precursor. He points to John’s strength of character and wholehearted commitment to his calling. This was not a man swayed by ignoble standards. John was a man of integrity, now in prison paying the price for that integrity.
This may seem like a sobering thought for a Sunday on which we rejoice in the prospect of eschatological fulfillment. However, it is John who heralds its approach, and it is John who reminds us that it is not a cheap grace. We would do well to take to heart the urging of Isaiah: “Be strong, fear not!” If God accomplished miracles of restoration in times past, through other people, God can certainly accomplish miracles of restoration today through us. As God worked through John, so God works through us. But just as the farmer labored over the land, we too must actively respond to our own calling.
Our world will be transformed by dedicated teachers, honest news media, equitable business managers, compassionate health care providers and vigilant public servants, to name but a few. Today we stand at the overlook and rejoice at the restoration that God has planned. But we cannot linger here. We must return to our respective fields, there to allow God to transform the world through us.