Advent Third Sunday
A Homily - B Cycle - 2002-2003
First Reading - Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Psalm - Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54
Second Reading - 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Gospel - John 1:6-8, 19-28
John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites (to him) to ask him, "Who are you?" he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, I am not the Messiah." So they asked him, "What are you then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, " I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No." So they said to him, "Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?" He said: "I am 'the voice of one crying out in the desert, "Make straight the way of the Lord,"' as Isaiah the prophet said." Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to unite." This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
We priests wear rose today because it's the Third Sunday of Advent, or Gaudete Sunday or Rejoice Sunday. We rejoice for two basic reasons: first, we're reminded during this penitential season of Advent, that our practices of penance are soon to come to an end on the evening of the 24th. It's as if we've reached the 2nd to the last lap of our Advent cycle. In other words, we're almost home.
The second reason, is a bit more significant and that is - Christ is near but he has not yet fully appeared. Any mother present here today knows what the final days of pregnancy are like - the anticipation and anxiety - the sense of almost but not quite yet. Their baby is noticeably alive and ready to be born and yet only the mother knows the child - people on the outside have only clues or descriptions to go on. With our Lady so very pregnant with our Lord, we too take time to rejoice that the Lord is near.
Today's Gospel is St. John's version of last week's Gospel taken from St. Mark. John the Baptist is the prominent figure once again. When the Jews asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah or the prophet, they're making reference to the Jewish belief that either Elijah or Isaiah would return before the coming of the Messiah. The Jews of John the Baptist's time figured that if John the Baptist was the second coming of these prophets, the long-awaited Messiah was sure to follow shortly. Instead, John the Baptist is referred to as testifying to the light, even though He himself was not the light. In the Gospel according to St. John, his three epistles and the Book of Revelation, the contrast between light and darkness is quite prominent. This past week's ice storm and the darkness that it left many of us in for several hours was a wonderful way to study this contrast. Christ is the true light coming into the world. Meanwhile, the darkness of sin never provides the happiness it promises - only the true light, Jesus - can really give us the joy that we celebrate this Sunday.
The opposite of joy is not struggle. The opposite of joy is sadness. To struggle is to be saintly. Deep sadness often leads to despair. That is why it is possible to be joyful amidst great struggle. Joy is not giddiness - it is both a passion and a fruit of the Holy Spirit that is a sign of our Christian hope. I often see this with so many of our homebound parishioners whom I visit throughout the month. Each of them struggles deeply with illness, loneliness and fear. But none of them are really sad; in fact, most of them are quite joyful knowing that all the suffering they endure now can be meritorious for them on Judgment Day. They are joyful in the midst of struggle.
One of the most poignant lines in today's Gospel is John's claim that the Messiah would be one among the Jews whom they would not recognize. When John the Baptist and Jesus show up on the scene, they are essentially telling the Jews that future is NOW. The Jews had been expecting their Messiah for centuries. At long last, the prophecies of Isaiah were really coming true in the very persons of John the Baptist and Jesus. You may recall a scene from the Gospel of St. Luke, which is very well-depicted in the movie Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus had just begun his public ministry and he has returned home to Nazareth for a visit. His reputation as an able preacher and miraculous healer precedes him. The Lord is invited to read out of the Scriptures in the synagogue. The scroll from Isaiah, from which He reads is today's first reading, which begins, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me..." To have been a Jew living in the Holy Land at this time must have been awe-inspiring. The tragedy, of course, is that many of the Jews did not see Jesus as fulfilling the prophecies - and it wasn't for lack of knowledge of Scripture, either.
The Jews failed to see Jesus for who He was and concentrated on who He wasn't. This lack of vision and the hardness of heart led to our Lord's death at Calvary. Indeed - John was correct- there was someone among them whom they did not recognize.
We do well to ask ourselves if we'll let this Advent pass us by without having recognized our Lord. He comes to us in so many ways, often subtle movements of the heart that prompt us to make straight His path. It would be a good idea to commit to being more sensitive to Christ among us. Maybe it's the estranged family member or wayward friend we've lost touch with whom we can't seem to want to contact because our pride gets in the way. Perhaps its the apology we owe someone that we can't seem to make. Maybe it's the co-worker who suffers from loneliness during this time of year and needs a home to be able to come to and celebrate.
Then again, maybe it's just us - those areas of our lives that we haven't quite given over to God; special moral "arrangements" we've made with Him that we know ultimately are facades for self-deception. When John the Baptist says to make straight the way of the Lord, he's referring to how workers, in anticipation of the arrival of a king, would straighten out the roads leading to their town so that his convoy would not have to make so many turns and would have an easier passage to the final destination. In our interior lives, we are called to the same type of work - to straighten out those things in our lives which otherwise make it difficult for Christ to be recognized in the world.
In many ways, Christ has been taken out of Christmas. There is so much merry-making during what has become nothing but a winter holiday. Even we Catholics get so caught up in the business of the season with office parties and gift buying that we forget the real reason for this season. With so many people busy making merry, we ought to wonder why and for what? Do they even acknowledge the authentic cause of our rejoicing? John the Baptist does not call for merry-making at all - he calls for repentance and conversion. At times, our culture hardly reflects a proper response to this invitation.
Speaking of culture - just last night, I offered Mass at the Bellarmine Chapel at George Mason University. Besides being the 3rd Sunday of Advent, it was also the first of the nine Masses for the Christmas novena of Masses in the Filipino community in the area, known as Simbang Gabi, or in Spanish - Missa de Gallo, or in English - Mass of the Rooster. This tradition dates back to the Spanish colonial era, where entire towns would rise for Mass at dawn for 9 consecutive nights. Lines for confession would be out the church door prior to Mass. After each Mass, there would be a family meal gathering for an hour before everyone rushed off to work and school. I remember very vividly growing up in Manila and walking to Mass with my entire neighborhood by candlelight to our parish church for Mass at Dawn.
It was considered a high honor as a young lad to be asked to be an altar boy at one of these Masses. Even the Cardinal would come over to pray the Mass with us. Now that's what I call real preparation for Christmas. During those nine days, people were in bed by 9pm because we had to get up at 4am. I cannot even describe the electricity in the air at Midnight Mass since the entire town was just so ready to celebrate Christmas - really ready.
In these waning days of Advent, let us pray more earnestly that each of us will have the same level of expectation that the pregnant Virgin was experiencing some 2000 years ago. May our hope that Christ is near always be the reason for our authentic Christian joy. May we not allow the troubling times in which we live to be a reason to quench this light of faith which burns deep within our hearts but also requires the discipline to be kept burning brightly until the light of the world comes in His glory.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!