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Daniel J. HarringtonDecember 10, 2007
The word salvation and the related terms save and savior are heard frequently in Advent. Their basic meaning concerns being brought to healing and wholeness; the process involves a transition from one state or status to another. Todays Scripture readings can help us better understand the various biblical contexts of these words and reflect on two fundamental questions: What is salvation? Who is the savior?

Todays reading from Isaiah 35 alludes to Israels return from exile in the 6th century B.C., a topic treated extensively in what is commonly called Second Isaiah (Chapters 40 to 55). It refers to Israels journey home from Babylon to Mount Zion. For Jews in the mid-6th century B.C. this was salvation. According to Isaiah 35, salvation involves the renewal of the earth through the glorious presence of God with his people. The desert will bloom, and nature will enter into the celebration. It also includes the physical wholeness of the travelers: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap about and the mute sing. Moreover, it involves lasting joy on the pilgrims part as they arrive at the site of their ancestral temple on Mount Zion. In the context of Isaiah 35, salvation is the deliverance of Gods people from captivity, physical obstacles, opposition and conflict. It is both material and spiritual. It brings about perfect peace and renewed relationship with God and other persons. The savior here is the God of Israel: Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.

Psalm 146 paints a similar picture of ancient Israels hopes for salvation. Here salvation is justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, freedom for captives, sight for the blind, protection for strangers, sustenance for the orphan and widow and frustration for the wicked. As in Isaiah 35, salvation is primarily concerned with life in this world. Again the savior is the God of Israel, because the Lord God keeps faith forever.

The theme of salvation is also central in the first part of todays selection from Matthew 11. When John the Baptist inquires from prison about Jesus (Are you the one who is to come?), the reply from Jesus echoes many of the themes in Isaiah 35 and Psalm 146. Jesus points to the signs and wonders he has been accomplishing: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. This list not only corresponds to its biblical prototypes but covers much of what Jesus had done, according to Matthew 8 and 9. The new element here is the identity of the savior. Here the savior is Jesus of Nazareth. The salvation hoped for by the prophet and the psalmist has been brought to a new level by Jesus. The name Jesus means the Lord saves. Because Jesus does what God does in the Old Testament, he earns the name Savior.

What Jesus does is sometimes called the works of the Messiah. In response to Johns inquiry, Jesus replies in effect, What kind of messiah are you looking for? He is not a warrior messiah like David or a splendid king like Solomon. Rather he appeals to his own acts of compassion and healing. They define the kind of messiah he is. He lives up to his name; he is Jesus the savior. With his mighty acts the kingdom of heaven has dawned, so those who are privileged to hear and see him in action are even greater than John the Baptist.

Todays reading from the Letter of James reminds us that through Jesus life, death and resurrection the concept of salvation has been expanded from the this-worldly concept of salvation so prominent in the Old Testament to include right relationship with God and eternal life in Gods kingdom. In the context of the New Testament the coming of the Lord refers to the second coming of Christ as part of the process of resurrection, judgment, rewards and punishments, and the fullness of Gods kingdom. Against the horizon of these hopes, James counsels patience after the example of the biblical prophets and Job. What the prophets waited for has been accomplished in part through Jesus the savior. But as our Advent readings keep reminding us, the fullness of salvation is yet to come. In the meantime we must not ignore the challenge present in both Testaments to imitate the example of the Lord who is compassionate and merciful to those in greatest need. That is part of the patience we must exercise in our everyday Christian lives.

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