At first glance, it may seem odd that the Gospel readings for the first week of Advent are about healings and miracles such as Jesus' dividing of the loaves and fish. What does this have to do with Advent or the coming of the Lord?
Seemingly in contrast, the Church hands us a string of readings from Isaiah that sound the gong for the coming of the Lord. "On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel," proclaims the Old Testament Reading for Monday in the first week of Advent (Isaiah 4.2).
There it is! A clear allusion to the marvellous arrival of Emmanuel in our midst. "On that day . . ." Those words are strong and crisp. They tell of the waiting of the people of Israel for "that day," that "beautiful and glorious" day, the day when Christ is in our midst.
Following this reading, we hear a Gospel that we hear at other times of the year, the healing of the centurion's servant. After the poetry of Isaiah, perhaps we expect more from the Gospel, something unique to this season of anticipation. Yet, this Gospel passage seems so factual.
So it goes for the rest of the week (interrupted this year by the memorial of St. Andrew on Tuesday). Each day, we have a passage from Isaiah unique to this season followed by a familiar story of healing from Matthew's Gospel.
On Friday, Isaiah proclaims, "On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see" (29.18). There is that beautiful and glorious day again. Matthew tells us, almost predictably, about two men who were healed of their blindness (9.27-31).
Why do the Gospel passages seem ordinary next to the marvellous language of the prophet?
The reason, I submit, is that we have not learned how to listen to Matthew. All of these miracles - not mundane occurrences by any stretch of the imagination - are the fulfillment of Israel's longing for the kingdom. More than that, they also point forward. Just as Isaiah's poetry sings of the coming of the Messiah, so Jesus' healings in Israel contain within them the seed of God's eternal kingdom.
The Gospel is no mere biography of Jesus. As Pope Benedict wrote in Jesus of Nazareth, God's kingdom belongs completely to the present and, at the same time, it carries history beyond itself. God acts concretely in our world, healing outcasts such as lepers and the blind, and giving food to the hungry. Yet each of those events is a seed of eternal glory.
Just as Isaiah is prophetic, so too is Matthew. Matthew records; he also points forward. Wednesday's Gospel (Matthew 15.29-37) is a beautiful prophecy of the universal, eternal kingdom. The crowds brought to Jesus "the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute and many others" and Jesus healed them all.
Then, Jesus divides the seven loaves and a few small fish to feed a great multitude of people. This is a great event, an historic one really. But our vision of that event must expand beyond history. We must see ourselves in the multitude, not in first century Palestine, but at God's eternal banquet.
Isaiah gives us the key to discerning how the miracles must expand. "On this mountain," he writes, "the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear" (25.6).
This banquet is much more than bread and fish. It is the most sumptuous feast one can imagine. It occurs in a new creation, one with similarities to the old, but far surpassing it in glory. That is what God has in store for us and that is what Jesus' miraculous feeding is pointing towards.
The Opening Prayer for Mass on Wednesday makes explicit this pointing forward to the eternal kingdom. It concludes by asking the Father, "so that on the day when your Son comes, he may judge us worthy to sit at his table and receive from his hand the bread of heaven."
The First Week of Advent is a week of the kingdom, that kingdom revealed in Jesus, a kingdom that is still a mystery. The Gospels, as well as Isaiah, unveil something of that mystery.
Read Matthew's accounts in this week's Gospels and then sit with them in silence. Then and only then, turn to Isaiah and listen to the prophet give poetic voice to the seed of the Gospel. Finally, see that promise alive in your own life today and imagine its wonderful fulfillment at the end of time.