“REJOICE IN THE LORD ALWAYS, AND AGAIN I SAY REJOICE!
INDEED, THE LORD IS NEAR.”
There is joy in retrospect, as we look at the past; there is joy of aspect, as we look at the present; there is the joy of prospect, as we look forward to the future.
There is the joy of memory, the joy of love, the joy of hope. There is the joy of the peaceful conscience, the joy of a grateful heart, the joy of the teachable mind, the joy of the trustful soul, the joy of the adoring spirit, the joy of the obedient life, and the joy of glowing hope. ‘In Thy Name do they rejoice.’ That is where we get our joy: in His name, in the revelation of God.
We are in the Holy Season of Advent and today is the 3rd Sunday. While the first two Sundays of the Advent Season draw our attention to the eschatological coming of the Lord, the third Sunday focuses our attention much more on the Lord already present among us. In the old Latin Liturgy, today was known as ‘Gaudete (Rejoice!) Sunday’, and rose vestments were worn to signal an alleviation in the penitential character of the season. The Mass formularies today still retain the call to ‘rejoice’, and the source and cause of that rejoicing is clearly the presence of God in our midst. Having passed the midpoint of Advent, our joy gets more and more intense as we advance in our journey of faith. And so, we kind of take a slight break from the purple of Advent, and we light the rose colored candle, the 3rd in the series in the Advent wreath, and use rose vestments symbolizing our hope and our joy as we await the coming of our Savior at Christmas. We rejoice because the day of salvation is near.
The Scripture Readings of today are a hymn to joy of salvation and are the closest we have to the joy of Christmas itself. They all give the message of hope that fills us with joy. The traditional antiphon or entrance hymn sets the theme: “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice! The Lord is near.” The Prophet Isaiah in the 1st Reading tells us that he is sent by God to announce the joyful message of salvation to the people of Israel, to a people in bondage and he says: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.” Our Responsorial Psalm, taking a different turn this Sunday, is taken from St. Luke’s Gospel rather than from the body of Psalms in the Old Testament. And this is ‘The Magnificat’. Mary proclaims this moving Canticle out of the joy she has in visiting her cousin Elizabeth who gave homage to our Lord in the womb of the Blessed Virgin: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” We use these beautiful words of Mary to express our joy as we, like Mary wait for the birth of our Savior. St. Paul, in the 2nd Reading from his 1st Letter to the Thessalonians exhorts us to “Rejoice always. Pray unceasingly. In all circumstances give thanks.” But, what about our Gospel Reading from St. John? There are no words in it like ‘glad tidings’, ‘rejoice heartily’, ‘spirit rejoices’, or ‘rejoice always’. What does it have to do with joy? It’s just about the unbelieving Levites and Pharisees interrogating John the Baptist to find out who he is? But, therein lies the answer: Belief. Faith. Listen again to the beginning of our gospel passage: “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” So, the thread of joy continues right through to our Gospel after all. It is faith in Jesus Christ, the faith for which John paved the way, that will end in unimaginable Joy.
“I REJOICE HEARTILY IN THE LORD, IN MY GOD IS THE JOY OF MY SOUL.”
The First Reading of today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah has been called by some scholars ‘the fifth servant song’, and it is expressed in God’s prophetic and symbolic language with lyrical beauty and poetry. In the midst of the desolation and destruction that the people of Israel found upon their return from the Exile to Jerusalem, the Prophet speaks of one who has been anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, liberty to captives, release to prisoners and a year of jubilee. The Christian tradition has seen in this prophetic passage the figure of the Messiah long expected, Jesus the anointed One. We notice that this is the very passage that Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth in the presence of his neighbors and he told them that this passage had been fulfilled in their hearing. In the dark days immediately following the return from exile, the prophet rejoices over the light which he sees dawning just over the horizon: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.” The prophetic passage delineates, moreover, in terms of nuptial imagery, the salvation and joy that would result from the messianic intervention of the consecrated one. The bride Jerusalem celebrates the fulfillment of love between herself and Yahweh, and this fruitful love is expressed poetically as the earth bringing forth its plants and a garden with its fresh growth.
“REJOICE ALWAYS. PRAY WITHOUT CEASING. IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES GIVE THANKS.”
St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians from which today’s Second Reading is taken, is the earliest letter St. Paul wrote and possibly, the oldest extant Christian manuscript. This letter is important for it gives us a glimpse into the life of the early Christian community, struggling to live out its faith in a harsh atmosphere of hostility and persecution and wrestling with issues concerning the future coming of the Lord Jesus. Indeed, some Thessalonians expected the Lord’s ‘Second Coming’ to occur in their lifetime and others are discouraged by its delay. In today’s passage, St. Paul urges the early Thessalonian Christians to embrace a way of life oriented to God in joy, prayer and thanksgiving. Also he exhorts them not to quench the Spirit. In this way they will be preserved blameless in spirit, soul, and body for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. For many, Christ came quickly as their faith led them to martyrdom. But they never lost their joyful spirit. So, strengthened by the belief that God is faithful, let us live the Advent Season not in passive expectation, but in a celebration of life in openness to the workings of the Spirit that is filled with enduring joy, unceasing prayer and constant thanksgiving.
“A MAN NAMED JOHN WAS SENT FROM GOD.”
The Gospel Reading of today continues to talk to us about John the Baptist, as it did last Sunday. It is taken from the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John. The poetic Prologue is interrupted by the insertion of the reference to John the Baptist. It says that a man named John suddenly appeared among the Jews. He was sent by God to announce the arrival of the Messiah that the people had been awaiting for various centuries. The gospel passage in fact wants to show the close relationship between Jesus and John but it does not give John the title ‘the Baptizer’. It is within the context of light and darkness that the reference to John is made. However, his purpose was clearly limited to one function, namely, to testify to the light. He told his audience that he is not the light, but the one who bears witness to the light which enlightens consciences by means of faith and radiates joy.
Many wondered if John the Baptist was the awaited Messiah. The Gospel of today explains the role of John the Baptist with the faith perspective of the Jews, perhaps to overcome some misunderstandings that existed among them. He has two different groups, the priests and the Levites on the one hand and the Pharisees on the other questioning about his authenticity. It is clear that the religious leaders in Jerusalem were puzzled as to John’s role and identity. This gives John the opportunity to clarify him and to flatly deny any claims of being the Christ. He tells them that he is not Elijah who had been taken up into heaven and was expected to return to prepare the way of the Lord. Nor is he a prophet like Moses, expectations of whose return was discussed in some circles. This is equal to denying any possible Messianic connection of any kind. Drawing a slightly modified version of Prophet Isaiah chapter 40, John defines his role as “the voice of the one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.”
The gospel passage ends with the declaration of John the Baptist, “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 untie.” John admits that he is not the Christ, yet he also insists on the reality and importance of the role he plays in God’s plan as the precursor. He tells them that he was called upon to baptize with water and present as one who prepares the way of the Lord. He points to the one in their midst whom they do not recognize and in honesty, humility and faithfulness declares his total unworthiness before him – not even worthy to untie his sandal straps. John’s answer is startling, unique and beautiful. It is a powerful message to the Jews of his time who were anxiously waiting for the coming of the Messiah. We rejoice because God is among us. God-in-Jesus has come among us two thousand years ago. We celebrate his coming every Christmas day. God continues to be among us today in many ways, perhaps as John says, in ways we do not know. Jesus is present today and he is most visible in the Holy Eucharist and in the faces of the poor.
“Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice! The Lord is near.” The Scripture Readings of today remind us that true joy and happiness is to be found only in God. Yes, indeed, Advent is a time of joyful anticipation and a time of preparation. It is a time to joyfully look forward to the coming of Christmas, to the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ into our lives and to prepare ourselves to receive the great gift that he offers us – the gift of the ‘robe of salvation’ that heals our poverty of spirit, our broken hearts, and our bondage to sinfulness.
Today’s Gospel Reading presents to us John the Baptist as our model, whose life, despite his sacrifices and hardships was full of joy that is if we define joy as a state of bliss over having or expecting something or someone that we love. So, during this season of Advent we see John’s role that is very similar to ours. On the one hand, we come after Jesus and are the beneficiaries of his being among us, sharers in the life he has brought. On the other hand, it is our role to go before him, clearing the way so that he may come into the lives of other people. This is our apostolic, our evangelizing responsibility. The mission of a good Christian is to be a prophet and announce the Gospel with the same valor, resolution, and integrity that John the Baptist had. We need many more Christians like him: fearless in their faith and humble in their ministry, who know how to stand up for what is right while standing in the shadows and allowing God to be the one who shines forth.
Let us then make our preparation of Christmas a joyful waiting for the Lord who is coming to us, who has already come and is certain to come again. The joy of Jesus, the joy of Christmas can only be ours to the extent that we work with Jesus to bring that joy into the lives of others too. The place where Jesus is waiting to meet us is particularly in the Eucharist which is a celebration of joy. We also discover him in the person of the poor, and of those long suffering physical or moral imprisonment – even prisons of their own making. If we bring them joy this Christmas, we ourselves will find that joy for ourselves. And this is the Good News of today.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.