Reflection on our reading from the Third Week of Advent
In this canticle (a psalm-like song from somewhere in the Bible other than the Book of Psalms), Isaiah the prophet collects phrases and images from various psalms and canticles, blending them into a new hymn of thanksgiving for the age to come, when Israel’s hopes and dreams will come true. Many of the images that Isaiah collects refer back to the Exodus from Egypt, when God set the people free from slavery. This canticle concludes a long section of the Book of Isaiah that sings about an ideal future king.
Many of our hymns and songs are like this canticle. They draw images and phrases from the Bible and blend them together in memorable ways, then set them to tunes that help us not only sing them, but echo in our minds and hearts. In fact, some of our hymns use the images and phrases that are collected in this canticle.
Reflection on our reading from the Second Sunday of Advent
The images in this psalm move from the extraordinary to the ordinary, linking the great events in the history of Israel with the routines of daily life and proclaiming that God is always present. The first half of this psalm remembers the return of Israel from Exile in Babylon (after Jerusalem was destroyed and most of the people were taken away as slaves). That return came as such as shock that it seemed like a dream.
The second half of the psalm focuses on the routine work of planting and harvesting. Every year, people have to go through the painful drudge work of planting, carrying the seeds out to the field, bending to plant them, waiting for the rains, hoping for the harvest. When the harvest finally does come, since people didn’t understand how the process of growth occurred, it seems like a dream. Especially when the harvest is so fruitful that the people come back from the fields singing for joy, with the sheaves of wheat carried over their shoulders.
Do we find God in ordinary events, in daily joys, or are we waiting for some extraordinary event? Certainly the birth of the Messiah, that we celebrate at Christmas, is extraordinary, but does it serve as a reminder that God is also present to us every day, in the ordinary joys and sorrows of life?
Reflection on our reading from the First Sunday of Advent
This is a song of a person in some kind of trouble, who is asking the Lord for guidance in a difficult situation. It may have been designed as a psalm that could be learned for use in any situation, just as we learn formal prayers like the “Our Father” or the “Hail, Mary.” Originally, each verse began with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, though that order has been altered a bit as the psalm has been handed down.
What the psalmist is asking for from God is to know the right way to act: “Let me know your paths . . . . Guide me in your true way and teach me.” It’s certainly a request any one of us could make at any time, especially when we’re confused about what’s the right thing to do. How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I carry that out? Other than suggesting that we should be faithful to God, the song writer doesn’t offer any practical advice. In fact, when considering the options, the psalmist can only ask: “Let me not be disappointed.”
One of the key words in this psalm is the word “remember.” In biblical thought, to “remember” something is to make it present and active right now. So the psalmist asks God to remember divine compassion and faithfulness (verse 6) but not to remember the psalmist’s early sinfulness (verse 7). “Remembering” in this sense is what we do at the Eucharist, when we “do this in memory” (that is, to remember) Christ.