A couple of takeaways to bring home with you from this Sunday’s readings for further reflection:
Isaiah’s Messianic Prophecy on a Shoot from the Stump of Jesse
Known for its significance for the New Testament and its unbelievably accurate prophecies that find perfect fulfilment in Christ, Isaiah is seen as “the fifth gospel” by some theologians (New Collegeville Bible Commentary on Isaiah, p.6). In this Sunday’s first reading, Isaiah shows us why this honor is well-deserved. Through the prompting and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the prophet refers to the Messiah as “a shoot [that] shall sprout from the stump of Jesse” (Is 11:1).
“[T]he stump of Jesse” is a reference to Judah because Jesse, King David’s father, is from the tribe of Judah. As the only territory of the Davidic dynasty remaining under Jewish jurisdiction after the Babylonian Exile, Judea is like the desolate stump of a gigantic tree that has once been lofty and overpowering. The prophet predicts that out of this barren stump will grow a shoot or branch that will enable it to flourish again. What he is referring to is obviously the new Davidic kingdom – the Heavenly Kingdom that Jesus, the new David, will bring.
Not to be left unmentioned is the humor – the play on words – of the Scriptures: Jesus, the “shoot/branch” in Isaiah’s prophecy, grew up in a town called Nazareth, which literally means “branch town” (Lk 2:4, 39)!
Isaiah’s Prophecy on a Voice in the Desert
We can’t possibly celebrate the coming of Christ without mentioning the one who prepared the way before him. In this Sunday’s gospel reading, Matthew sees the appearance of John the Baptist in the desert of Judea as a fulfillment of another Messianic prophecy of Isaiah: “a voice of one crying out in the desert [will] prepare the way of the Lord” (Mt 3:3, Is 40:3).
A little background for John the Baptist’s appearance is in order. Around the time of Jesus, the Holy Land is a land of great unrest. The Davidic kingdom lies in ruins. Political uprisings against the Romans are common place. Israel has been waiting for centuries “the Prophet” that God had promised Moses - one like Moses, who would be able to see God face to face (cf. Deut 18:15, 34:10). Not only has the emergence of “the Prophet” remained an unfulfilled promise, Israel also has been without prophets for many years. For the chosen people of God, it feels as though they were living in a prolonged period of divine abandonment.
This explains why it is such a big deal when John the Baptist appears: finally, God is sending Israel a prophet, albeit the last O.T. prophet! What ensues is almost like a Ben-Hur moment. According to Matthew, “Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Mt 3:5-6).
Turned out, an even bigger deal is still in store. It catches even John by surprise. Along with the multitudes of people that converge on the Jordan area where John’s baptism is being administered, Jesus, the person whose way he is to prepare, also appears (cf. Lk 3:7-14)! Like the crowds whom John admonishes as “brood of vipers”, he is also asking to receive baptism (Lk 3:7, Mt 3:13). Is Jesus the promised Prophet (cf. Deut 18:15, 34:10)? Why does he need John’s baptism? How are we supposed to understand all these twists and turns? That will be a whole new topic for us to contemplate on next Sunday - the 3rd Sunday of Advent.