Second Sunday of Advent
In our scripture translations, word choices matter. When today’s first reading tells us that a “stump” will bring forth a new shoot, it’s Isaiah’s way of telling us that God’s miraculous power is at work. Seeds bring forth shoots. Even buried roots can bring forth shoots. But a stump? When we look at a stump, essentially we are seeing the corpse of what used to be a tree. Mortal eyes look and see death, but divine eyes look and see new life. And what a life the Spirit of God will bring forth from this stump! A life filled with wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and fear of the Lord—the life that we name “Jesus.” How fitting it is that we will also look upon the wood Calvary’s cross—a tree of death—and behold that the Spirit of God has turned that tree into a Tree of Life!
We often change our tone of voice and vocabulary when we really want to get somebody’s attention. Parents will add a middle name to indicate a child is in trouble (a middle and last name when the child is really in trouble). Change of tone and words invites attention, demanding a response. Today John the Baptist does a bit of name-calling: “You brood of vipers!” Even for someone like John, who regularly used potent vocabulary, this way of addressing the holy men—the Pharisees and Saducees—this level of name-calling stands out. Snakes were commonly understood as a representation of evil, and a poisonous snake in the ancient world held the power of life and death, as the holy men thought they did. Instead of thinking about their own power, John tells them to produce good fruit. We still get ourselves in trouble today when we think that we truly hold any type of power over others, when it’s a power that belongs only to God.
Words like John’s might cause fear in us, or may hold us back, hesitant. Words like these can also invite us to change our lives. When we do so, we open ourselves to a core virtue of the Advent season: hope. Changing our lives can also open us up to a more vigorous presence of the gifts of the Holy Spirit—wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and fear of the Lord—named in Isaiah today. Recall that it was in that very Spirit we were named for Christ at Baptism. Open your ears and heart to the voice of God, who knows the name given to you on that day. Respond not out of fear, but in love, to the ways that God is calling to you today; calling you to change what needs to be changed, and to welcome Christ today, as you will once again on Christmas day.