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Deacon-structing the Minor Prophets

Deacon Pedro

Monday, November 1, 2021

Detail of Gustave Doré's illustration "Micah Exhorts the Israelites to Repent" (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
We have all heard readings from the books of the prophets. You know: when the first reading is from the “Book of the Prophet” Jeremiah, or Isaiah or Ezekiel. Sometimes it’s from the Prophet Daniel or from a lesser known prophet like Nahum.
As I've begun to prepare for the Advent season, it struck me that this year, as we begin the new liturgical year, the first readings at Mass each Sunday are from different prophets – and three of them are lesser known prophets!
So let’s look at them. Who were they? What do we know?
The first thing we need to understand about the prophets is that they were not people who predicted the future. That’s not what “prophecy” means in this context. The word "prophet" comes from the Hebrew word that means “spokesman”. So, literally, a prophet is someone who speaks for God. Prophets are the people that God uses to get his message to us. A prophet does not speak his own words. We know someone is a prophet because when they speak they always begin with “Thus says the Lord.”
There are 16 prophetic books in the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel (which are called Major Prophets because these books are longer and more profound), and Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (Minor Prophets).
I have two suggestions for you when you read the prophets: First, find out a bit of the historical background and context in which the prophet was writing. And second, don’t read it as prose. It may look like prose, but it may be more like poetry. Remember that it is God speaking, and so a bit of a mystical openness may be necessary.
Starting in two weeks, on the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, the first reading at Sunday Mass will be from the prophet Daniel. On Christ the King, the first reading will also be from Daniel. On the first Sunday of Advent, we will hear from Jeremiah. Afterwards, we will hear from three of the minor prophets.
Since you have probably heard about Jeremiah and Daniel, let’s look at these three others in a bit more detail. Maybe you'll be inspired to read the full books as you make your journey through Advent.
 
Second Sunday of Advent, Year C: Baruch
Baruch is not listed as one of the prophets. His book is found in the midst of the Major Prophets, between Lamentations (written by Jeremiah) and Ezekiel. It is considered one of the deuterocanonical books (or Apocrypha, books that were not found in the original Hebrew Bible but found in the Jewish Old Testament written in Greek among the Jews in Alexandria and included in the original Christian collection of Scripture.) Baruch was “Jeremiah’s secretary”. It is believed that even though the book is written as if he were in the 6th century BC writing to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, he actually wrote it in the 3rd or 4th century BC to the Jews who lived in Egypt at the time. They were not in captivity but probably experienced a lot of the same challenges and struggles of those in exile. Regardless, the book offers the hope that God will restore those who are repentant. In chapter 1, verse 5, it tells us how the people reacted when they heard Baruch’s words: “They wept, fasted and prayed to the Lord.” This coming second Sunday of Advent, he tells us that “God will show all the earth your splendour” (5:3) and “look to the east and see your children [...] rejoicing that they are remembered by God” (5:5).
 
Third Sunday of Advent, Year C: Zephaniah
Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, which was around 620 BC. Likely because he heeded Zephaniah’s message, Josiah was one of the few good kings before the Babylonian exile. However, despite the goodness and faithfulness of the king, it was a little too late. The people hoped that when “the day of wrath” (Dies Irae, Zephaniah 1:15–16) came, God would go easy on them. Zephaniah tells them that if they repent, God will turn aside his judgment. It worked for a bit, but not for long. The people were still hardhearted and the next four kings “did evil in God’s eyes”. Twenty-two years after Josiah’s death, the city was invaded and destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. On this Sunday, Zephaniah will tell us to “shout for joy”, “sing joyfully”, and “be glad and exult with all your heart” for “the Lord has removed the judgment against you” (3:14-15). More important than that, “the Lord, your God is in your midst [...] he will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love” (3:17).
 
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C: Micah
Micah is best known for the quote that we will hear this Sunday: “You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel” (5:2).  This is the prophecy that the religious leaders quoted to King Herod when he asked where the Messiah would be born (Luke 2:5-6). Micah is an abbreviation of “Michael”, which, as we know from the archangel, means, “Who is like God?” He wrote in the 8th century BC and was a contemporary of Isaiah. Writing to the residents of both Jerusalem (Judah) and Samaria (Israel), he reminds them of God’s righteousness and that God demands righteousness from them. The second most well-known passage from Micah is: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8) This coming fourth Sunday of Advent, he tells us that the one who is to be the ruler of Israel will “stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord” and “his greatness shall reach the ends of the earth; he shall be peace” (5:4-5).
 
As you begin to read read the prophets, you will soon realize that they all have the same three-part message: They call out our sins; they tell what the consequences of our sins will be; and then they announce the hope for the future. This is why during Advent and Christmas we always hear from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets, as they remind us that the Christ will come and there is hope, for "a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom" (Isaiah 11:1), and "the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious" (Isaiah 11:10).

pedroEvery week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: pedro@slmedia.org


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