Advent, the Third Sunday

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near. (cf Philippians 4:4-5).

My soul rejoices in my God. (Isaiah 61:10).

“The spirit (רוּחַ ruach) of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed (מָשַׁח mashach) me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings (בָּשַׂר bāsar) to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God (Isaiah 61:1-2a).”
“I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation (יָשַׁע yasha) and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels. As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations (Isaiah 61:10-11).”

When was the last time you addressed someone with “glad tidings” or a person addressed you with the same greeting? The question would be the same if “glad tidings” were substituted by the word gospel. Many Christians tend to think the word gospel is unique to the Christian experience bearing the names Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Historically, the English word that comes to us as gospel has a rich foundation in the cultures of the Ancient Near East as well as the Persian and Greek military machines. In the pages of the Old Testament, glad tidings (בָּשַׂר bāsar) is often associated with war, particularly victory. The victor and company sing the “glad tidings” of a new way of living that the victory has effected. More specifically, numerous uses of glad tidings (בָּשַׂר bāsar) in the Old Testament center on David either victorious in battle or protected against his enemies. Accounts of victorious battles or protection from those who sought to kill him were often couched in the language of glad tidings (בָּשַׂר bāsar). Around the time of Alexander the Great when a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures occurred (a text known as the Septuagint and commonly abbreviated by the Roman numeral LXX (70) because it is believed that 70 elders were involved in the production of the Greek translation) “to bring glad tidings (בָּשַׂר bāsar)” was translated εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo, gospel) “To announce good news” in the Persian-Greek era was to announce victory over one’s enemy or enemies. In time, the use of εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo, gospel) appeared to be somewhat restricted to news of victory concluding a war. While there were (and still are!) many events that constituted “good news,” Alexander’s time opted for a more restrictive identity of “good news” linked to a victorious end of a war or military campaign.

Prior to Alexander the Great and still within the Tradition of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Advent’s Prophet of Hope made use of glad tidings (בָּשַׂר bāsar), especially in the chapters beginning at 40. In the Isaian text proclaimed last week, “glad tidings (בָּשַׂר bāsar)” was news intimately linked to freedom from captivity, a freedom that resulted from the transformation (not annihilation) of obstacles. “Go up on to a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings (בָּשַׂר basar); cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news (בָּשַׂר basar)! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care (Isaiah 40:9-11).” True to his time and culture, Isaiah conveys a sense of the military (“power,” and “rules by his strong arm”) but notice the other aspect: the ‘good news’ of feeding, carrying and leading. These actions are at the heart of living, especially in and on a land that is often hostile to life. These actions became concrete images in the Old Testament describing (never defining, that is, limiting) the experience of salvation (יָשַׁע yasha or yesha [the Hebrew root of Jesus!]). Salvation (יָשַׁע yasha) in the context of the Old Testament is about living on a land that is broad and wide, not hemed in to or by a tight space. On this land that is broad and wide, one has sufficient resources for a family to live: sufficient drinking water for family, livestock and crops. One has sufficient food for family and herd. Sufficient clothing and housing offers protection from nature (a scorching sun by day and surprisingly cold night) and criminals. For Isaiah this was all experienced as pure and complete gift from a Providential God of Love.

For Isaiah, this proclamation of glad tidings (בָּשַׂר basar) is an act of creation. It brings into existence and establishes order and harmony that did not exist prior to the proclamation. Glad tidings (בָּשַׂר basar) is power that transforms even the most colossal obstacle into a vehicle of life and love. It is for this reason that one is anointed (מָשַׁח mashach). The concrete image of an abundant ‘rubbing oil into’ (not a passive pouring of drops) equips the recipient with the power necessary to call being into existence. That is truly the work of Messiah whose root in Hebrew is that of anointed. The Messiah whose birth we prepare to celebrate reminds us that we too have been anointed for mission through Baptism and Confirmation (and Ordination). Following the initiative of and working with the Holy Spirit, we model John the Baptist in speaking a word to burn complacency from our midst as the glad tidings of Divine Love are breathed into a waiting world and longing hearts.

O God, Who see how Your people
faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity,
enable us, we pray,
to attain the joys of so great a salvation
and to celebrate them always
with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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