The Church as a Messianic Community
(Readings: Isaiah 35:1-6,10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.)
Introduction to Mass
In the first reading today the prophet Isaiah looks forward to the coming of the Messiah, while the gospel shows how the first communities of Christians interpreted prophecies like Isaiah's as applying very clearly to Jesus. The readings point up the way that the Church, as a body, has the job of carrying on the messianic programme that Jesus carried out in his own ministry.
The prayer over the Advent wreath follows (see homily for 1st Sunday in Advent) and three candles on the wreath are lit.
Isaiah: Hoping and Waiting for the Messiah
When we're suffering in some way, going through a period of darkness or distress in our lives, we often try to lift our spirits by looking forward to a time when our suffering will be relieved, when the distress will be over and done with. It helps us carry our burden at the time and it gives us something to aim for and a motive for struggling on. In fact, being able to imagine a better future is very often the first step towards creating it.
In many ways this was the situation that the prophet Isaiah found himself in. Isaiah was alive about 750 years before Christ. He grew up at a time of peace and great prosperity in Israel and in Judah, but he saw the people of his own time as being ungrateful, full of themselves and complacent. He saw their worship of God as being elaborate and showy, but insincere. He felt that the people were trusting in the wrong things, forgetting about God's law and living in a fool's paradise.
Like all the prophets Isaiah felt obliged to speak out and to voice his criticisms. His message was a message with two parts. The first part was a premonition of disaster. Isaiah's conviction was that his society was doomed, and that in a sense this was a judgement and a punishment by God. 'Vengeance is coming,' he says in today's passage, 'the retribution of God is coming'.
But the second part of his message was that a minority of the people would remain faithful to God, or come back to God - there would be a small 'remnant' who would see God's presence and God's activity in the disastrous events and be genuinely converted.
It's difficult to describe the inner workings of the special vocation that all the prophets had. But Isaiah's intuition was that in the future God would send a Messiah - another King David figure as he imagined it - and this Messiah would restore all the qualities of justice and honesty and integrity and so on that were lacking among the Chosen People in Isaiah's own time.
So again, imagining a better future was the first step in trying to create it. Conjuring up images of the future where God's rule would establish itself was Isaiah's way of encouraging people to embrace God's rule now, and help bring it about.
Jesus the Expected Messiah
If we jump ahead, then, to the episode in Matthew's gospel that we just listened to, we find John the Baptist, already in jail, wondering whether Jesus is the Messiah figure prophesied by Isaiah centuries before. Jesus as usual doesn't give a direct answer. Instead he points to the evidence. The blind see, the deaf hear again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the poor have the good news of salvation proclaimed to them.
This was an echo of many passages in the books of the prophets, describing the characteristics of the Messiah. And what the writer of the gospel - Saint Matthew - is saying about Jesus is that the pattern of his ministry conforms to the expectations of the Messiah. In the person of Jesus, this messianic future, predicted by the prophets, has arrived. And of course, this is one of the central claims of the gospels: in Christ's ministry, God's Kingdom is breaking in now, in the present.
It isn't possible in a short space of time to give a complete description of every aspect of Christ's ministry, but we can mention a few of the main features that led his disciples and his first followers to see Jesus as the Messiah who had been promised.
The first and maybe the main feature of Jesus' ministry which they saw in that light was his work of healing. It's true that there was most often a miraculous element in many of Jesus' healings, but even on an ordinary level Jesus was somebody who was so filled with the spirit of God's concern and compassion for people who were suffering, or in need, that he was able to communicate with them instantly. With people who were suffering Jesus revealed an almost unique sensitivity, an ability to relate to them and of course to relieve them of their suffering and to heal them.
And I think we definitely have to see Jesus as someone in whom the Holy Spirit was active to a far greater degree than is the case with most people.
A second aspect of Jesus' ministry which was messianic was his activity of preaching and teaching. According to the gospels, Jesus' words were words of life and enlightenment. He taught people how to live in the spirit of God's Kingdom and he explained the implications of the commandment of love. But at the same time he also came out with very harsh warnings to people not to persist in self-centred ways of living that could only be destructive.
In his teaching Christ's sympathies were obviously directed towards people who were weak and fallen and broken - people who admitted their weakness and their sinfulness. But on the other hand his anger was roused very easily by pompous and sanctimonious religious officials, who were blind to their own sinfulness and heartless towards other people's. He dismissed them as individuals who didn't have any real contact with God at all.
So all in all, the characteristics of Christ's ministry were healing and service; solidarity with the poorest and lowest people; and what we might call a willingness to confront any false images of God, and anything which degraded or demeaned human dignity in the same way as the prophets had before him. And these characteristics were the characteristics expected of the Messiah.
The Church: Carrying on the Messianic Programme
Well, so much for Jesus' ministry. The question for us, now, is: does the pattern of Jesus' ministry have any relevance for us, the community of his followers, two thousand odd years later?
Not surprisingly, perhaps, I think it does. At the present time, the Church, the community of believers, is in-between times. We're in between the time of Jesus' first coming and the time of the final coming of the Kingdom. That's partly what Advent is about, and it's what was meant by that image of the Church which was popular after the Vatican Council, of the Church as the 'Pilgrim People'. It was an image of a community on the move, travelling towards our final destiny.
But at the same time, while we're still in the pilgrimage period, we're not supposed to be idle. In the meantime, it's the purpose of the Church to carry on the main aspects of Jesus' ministry, to be the vehicle of God's activity in the same way that he was.
We don't have Christ's miraculous powers. We don't for the most part have his unique closeness to the Father. But it seems to me that when you look around at the society we live in, it's just as much in need of the kind of healing and service that Christ offered, and just as much in need of the same words of life, as society was in his time: maybe more so. And if we, as the Church, don't in some way mirror the features of Jesus' own ministry, we're failing in our vocation and drifting away from our original purpose.
Let me try to underline the point by making a comparison. At the moment there's a lot of talk about the Church's decline in numbers, and there's a lot of panic-driven measures being taken to try to arrest the decline. Unfortunately, when the Church becomes inward-looking, when it makes its own survival as an institution the top priority, that only makes things worse and hastens the process of decline.
But when you look around at the pockets of vitality that there are among groups of Christians, the reason for their vitality seems to be that they're taking their cue from Jesus' own ministry. It could be a particular parish, or some small group or organisation. The crucial thing is that they're touching human distress in some way.
They're imitating Christ's sensitivity and his way of relating to people who are suffering or in need. And when Christians do that, they're co-operating with the Holy Spirit, and their church life flourishes.
But when we just get on with a lot of navel-gazing, we're blocking the Holy Spirit, and the result very often is depression and exhaustion.
That takes us back to Isaiah, and his predictions about the survival of a faithful remnant. In many ways we're in a similar position today. The influence and the prestige and the numbers of people which the Church used to command is a thing of the past. The only future for the Church now is a future of small groups of believers, committed in a more radical way to carrying on the main lines of Jesus' ministry, but carrying it on in a way that's appropriate to our particular context.
That's the lesson I take from these readings on the third Sunday of Advent. Christ showed he was the messianic figure everyone had been waiting for by doing the things that the Messiah was expected to do. In our turn we show that we're a messianic community by continuing to make his healing and service present in the way that he did. It reminds me of that saying of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement. 'There's no time for hopelessness,' she said. 'There's too much work to be done.'