The Second Sunday of Advent (Year C), 9 December 2018

December 9, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Baruch 5:1–9 Song of Zechariah [Luke 1:68–79] Philippians 1:3–11 Luke 3:1–6 Malachi 3:1–4

Discussion of the Texts:     As I write the following commentary on the readings for the Second Week of Advent, Hurricane Michael has ravaged the Florida panhandle, as well as leaving considerable devastation in its wake as it crossed over numerous other states and islands in and along the Gulf of Mexico. Speaking with my mother about my younger brother and his family who just moved to Georgia (and who may be deployed from his Air Force base to assist with the relief efforts in Georgia, Florida, and other states), I was informed that entire towns “look like piles of match-sticks. Numerous families have yet to hear from family members in the affected areas. And, unlike when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, the present administration has made a point to respond rapidly to the crises across numerous states. And all this devastation is in addition to all the social and political ills within the United States and elsewhere.

In the face of these tragedies, we begin today’s readings with the Zion poem of Baruch. According to Lawrence M. Wills, the text “provides a valuable insight into the everyday piety of Jews in the second or first century BCE, when it was likely written” (“Baruch: Introduction,” The Access Bible, Updated Edition, 1465). Borrowing from Isaiah and Deuteronomy (L. M. Wills, The Access Bible, 1469), the Zion poem of Baruch presents the reader/hearer with a penitent people. Within the reading today, however, we are met at the end of Baruch with the declaration of hope from the author: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God” (Bar. 5:1). The author, speaking to a people who had been in exile and were again facing subjugation at the hands of yet another empire (viz. Rome in the first century BCE) are reminded that even though “they [Israel] went out from you [Jerusalem] on foot, led away by their enemies . . . God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne” (5:6), and that “God will lead Israel with joy . . . with the mercy and righteousness that come from him [sic]” (5:9).

Alternatively, we could look to the book of Malachi as an optional first reading today. Contrawise to Baruch, Theodore Hiebert says notes that the author of Malachi was “concerned about a lack of devotion and seriousness in Judha’s Temple” (“Malachi: Introduction,” The Access Bible, 1300). Indeed, the author states that “I [God] am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his [sic] temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he [sic] is coming, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 3:1). This reading is apropos of the Christmas season for which Christians are pining during the Advent season. Still, the following verse offers us a warning, asking “who can endure the day of [the messenger’s] coming, and who can stand when [the messenger] appears” (3:2), because this messenger will be more than a light but a “refiner” and a “purifier” of those who seek after God (see 3:2, 3). The author, only then, believes that the offering unto God will be pure (3:4).

Following such an apparently dreary reading (or continuing the theme from Baruch), the responsorial to the first reading is the Canticle of Zechariah. (I can easily recall praying this every morning as a Catholic seminarian, praying the words in community with my fellow seminarians.) David L. Tiede describes this as the Benedictus sung in Christian worship (Access Bible, 1749). The passage is a prophetic one, a calling to Zechariah’s son John, in response to the question of Luke 1:66: “What then will this child become?” And this passage dovetails well into the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which is joyful. The author of the letter expresses their joy at the faithfulness of the church at Philippi (Phil. 1:3–5). In fact, the words of the author speak to the prayerful works of the church at Philippi as being such that they will be remembered in the final days (1:6), having “produced righteousness” (1:11).

It is now, with the Gospel reading, that we return to the story we heard from the Responsorial: “. . . the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2). Harkening back to Malachi 3:1, we are told that “[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3). What is more, the passage calls us back to Isaiah 40:3–5, with a voice crying in the wilderness (Lk. 3:4; see also Is. 40:3).

Process Theology and the Texts:     What a wilderness we seem to find ourselves navigating today! I mean this figuratively vis-à-vis our society’s present situation and within our readings. However, all of today’s readings address the complex matter of redemption, suffering, and culmination in God. As I have mentioned in earlier commentaries, there are two strains of process theology toward which we can turn: that which stems from the philosophic work of Alfred North Whitehead, and that which stems from the theological and scientific work of Pierre Teihard de Chardin. Each of these suggest different interpretations of the texts, though not necessarily interpretations which are mutually exclusive.

For the Whiteheadian scheme, there is no final culmination or absolute eschaton for which we hope—though we could say that there are mediately present eschatons with each passing moment. Generally speaking, this would be Whitehead’s conception of prehension, whereby the objective data of the past culminate in the present subject to then be “thrown” into the future. What occurs in these miniature eschatons, however, remains uncertain, inasmuch as there is always some element of novelty. What is more, there are both positive and negative prehensions: some objective data is taken into the new subject, but some objective data is cast aside.

The Teilhardian position takes us in a slightly different direction. For example, Teilhard envisioned a final culmination for the cosmos in what he called “the Omega,” the hyper-personal sublation and sublimation of the cosmogenesis (the term he used in lieu of “cosmos,” suggesting the evolutionary character of creation). Any number of his works discuss this, though The Human Phenomenon devotes an entire chapter to it. Sublation is an important element, as it is comparable to Whitehead’s notion of prehension; and, similar to Whitehead, he uses existing terms in new ways.1 A crucial distinction in movement toward this Omega, what differentiates it from prehension, is that the process of sublation and sublimation in Teilhard precludes negative prehensions: nothing is lost or destroyed.

What seems to be most valuable here is the way that we could combine these two modes of thought, especially as they apply to the readings for today. What I envision here is the sublation of Whitehead’ continual miniature eschatons and Teilhard’s ultimate eschaton: the former recognizes that every passing moment is itself an opportunity to realize the Reign of God in the world, one which is supported by the Christian hope in a culmination in the Heart of God; however, we also recognize that such a realization requires our work, our labors, our sufferings, and that all of these will never be lost but transformed in God, the fellow sufferer.

Preaching the Texts:     As always, there are so many topics upon which to preach this week. One such topic could be the promise for which Baruch hoped. Of course, it is not enough to merely hope—to desire, if you will—since a hope without action is insufficient unto itself. This seems to be one reason behind Paul telling the Philippians that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6). The hope, for its realization, requires our action. And the actions called for are just those of Zechariah to John:

[Y]ou, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his [sic] ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76–79)

Additionally, as Paul says later in his letter to the Philippians, “this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best” (Phil. 1:9–10). And this leads us to another point of departure which concerns ecological theology, incarnation, and the eschatological promise of the today’s readings, such as when we read in Luke that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk 3:6). We could surmise, as did some early Christian theologians, that redemption extends beyond merely the human sphere—indeed, to limit redemption only to humanity belies the fact of our planet’s 4.2 billion year geologic history, and that our species is only one of millions on a small planet within a vast universe. According to John Haught,

[t]he thrust of much recent science, especially physics and astrophysics, is that we truly belong to the universe. Theologically this would mean that the revelatory promise that gives us our hope extends backward to cosmic beginnings, outward to the most remote galaxies, and forward to the future of creation. And if all of nature shares in the promise, then this should be more than enough reason for our taking care of it here and now as we wait “with joyful hope” for its fulfillment in God’s new creation. (Haught, “Ecology and Eschatology,” in “And God Saw That It Was Good”: Catholic Theology and the Environment (1996), 63)

This is the eschatological vision for an ecological theology, one which becomes even more potent when we combine it with the hope of the present season: the Incarnation. If we hold a high Christology, then we can make the case that the Incarnation involved not only the taking-on of human nature, but of that of the cosmos in its entirety. This can be the case even within a low Christology, wherein we can say that the whole of the cosmos and all creatures incarnate God in particular ways; Jesus of Nazareth would be one whose life exemplifies how we are to incarnate God for others and to find God incarnate in all other creatures, not merely humans.

*  *  *  *  *  

  1. Regarding “sublation” and “sublimation,” Teilhard draws upon his background as a scientist and a Roman Catholic priest. As a scientist, Teilhard borrows sublimation from chemistry, where the terms refers to an endothermic phase transition from a solid to a gas without ever being a liquid (i.e. dry ice converting at room temperature to carbon dioxide gas). As priest, especially as a Jesuit, Teilhard was trained in the history of philosophy before continuing on to his theological and further studies; from this education he adapted Hegel’s term aufheben (or aufhebung)¸ which is often translated as “sublation.” The critical difference between Teilhard’s use and the standard interpretation of Hegel is that Teilhard’s use entails the coming together of two or more elements into a unity without any of them losing their identities.

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a second year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology. Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy and the traditions of the Ainu People of Japan), in light of Whiteheadian process thought. Rob is also the current English Coordinator for The Balkan Journal of Philosophy, Editorial Assistant with the Whitehead Research Project, and the 2018/19 Research Assistant for Philip Clayton.