Sunday of Week 3 of Advent


Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-6; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

TODAY USED TO BE CALLED “Gaudete Sunday” from the first word of the Entrance Song in Latin.  Gaudete means ‘Rejoice!’  Formerly, as some of us can still remember, Advent was a much stricter penitential season.  During three days of this week there was fast and abstinence.  This was known as “Quarter Tense” because it occurred four times in the year.  However, this Sunday was intended to be a relaxing break reminding us of the celebrations soon to come.  As a symbol of this, the penitential violet of the vestments may be softened to a kind of pink, or rose colour.  (There is a similar Sunday in the middle of Lent.)

On the one hand, a penitential mood is an appropriate way to prepare ourselves to welcome the coming of the Lord.  And, though we may not have fasting, many parishes will organise Penitential Services with the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the days leading up to Christmas.  At the same time, it is difficult not to feel some excitement as we anticipate the celebration of Jesus’ coming among us.

Full of joy

So, the Mass text and readings today are full of joy, especially the Entrance Song, the Opening Prayer and the First Reading from Isaiah.

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I say, rejoice!” is the cry of the Entrance Antiphon.  Why?  Because “the Lord is near”.

The Opening Prayer asks that we, “who look forward to the birthday of Christ, experience the joy of salvation and celebrate that feast with love and thanksgiving.”

In the First Reading the prophet goes overboard with excitement and enthusiasm:

Let the wilderness and dry lands exult,

let the wasteland rejoice and bloom…

let it rejoice and sing for joy.

And the reason for all this?

They shall see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God.

And is it just a matter of being able to see him?  No, for

Look! your God is coming… He is coming to save you!

Salvation means bringing healing, wholeness and holiness as we become closely united to him.  This healing, wholeness and holiness is depicted graphically:

The eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed,

then the lame shall leap like a deer

and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy.

These words, as we will see below, will be applied explicitly to Jesus who brought this healing and wholeness into so many people’s lives.

However, we should not confine this healing only to the physical.  It will also include healing on the emotional, social and spiritual levels.  We are not made whole until harmony and wellbeing flows through our whole self.

The One who is to come

All this is closely linked to today’s  Gospel.  We find ourselves, in Matthew’s Gospel, at the mid-point in Jesus’ ministry.  John the Baptist had already been arrested.  He had accused King Herod of doing something immoral, namely, marrying his brother’s wife while his brother was still living.

While in prison, John hears about Jesus and sends some of his disciples with a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Whether John really wanted to know or whether it was really for the benefit of his disciples is not clear.  After all, John had already proclaimed Jesus at the River Jordan and said he was not worthy to unloose the thongs of Jesus’ sandals.  “The one who is to come” is, of course, the long-expected Messiah.

How does Jesus answer?  As so often happens, he does not respond directly to the question but quotes the prophet Isaiah using the passage which is our First Reading for today.  “Go back and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see again, and the lame walk and the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News/Gospel is preached to the poor.”

This exactly describes what Jesus has been doing.  It also exactly conforms to what Isaiah said about the time of the Messiah.  Jesus in effect is saying “Yes, I am the one who is to come.  I am the Messiah, the Christ, the Saviour King of Israel.”

Still waiting

While the Gospel speaks of the Messiah already here, we at this very time are, in a sense, still waiting in anticipation.  Jesus, of course, is already present and working through his Body, the Christian community, the Church.  But he still has to come more fully into our own lives.  As the Opening Prayer suggests, we need to “experience the joy of salvation” – that power of healing and wholeness which Jesus can bring into our lives.  This is something each one of us has to do and what we as a community also have to do.  I feel that there are still many, including Christians, who have not yet experienced the deep joy of becoming whole in Christ.

For most of us, the transformation into becoming “another Christ” takes time.  We need the advice of James in the Second Reading: “Be patient.”  As he says, “How patiently [the farmer] waits for the precious fruit of the ground until it has had the autumn rains and the spring rains!”

One of the greatest

John the Baptist is presented by Jesus as one of the greatest persons ever born.  Yet he missed the privilege being born into the age of Christ, a privilege that has been made available to us.  We could do well to emulate John in preparing ourselves for Jesus to become really part of our lives.

John was strong.  He was a man of integrity.  He was not one of the rich and famous.  He was no pop star – all sound and no substance.  He would never have made a glamorous icon for Hello magazine.  Yet many people went out to hear him, to be challenged by him, to have their lives radically changed by his words.

Actually, our Christian vocation is similar to his.  We are called to prepare the way for Jesus to come into our own hearts but also to prepare other people’s hearts so that they, too, may “experience the joy of salvation”, that healing, wholeness and holiness we all long for and which alone gives real meaning to our lives.  Christmas is a time of gifts – both giving and receiving.  Let us make sure that among the gifts we offer to others is some of the Christian joy which we ourselves have received.

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