Sunday of Week 3 of Advent (Year B)

Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28

On this Third Sunday of the Advent season, the theme is traditionally one of joy. The first word of the entrance hymn today is “Rejoice!” This is a tradition coming down from the old pre-Vatican II Latin Mass when the first word of the Introit or entrance antiphon was Gaudete (rejoice, be glad). And so this Sunday has come to be known as ‘Gaudete Sunday’.

In the past, Advent was a penitential season – there were four fast days during this period – and the celebrant of the liturgy wears vestments with the penitential colour of purple or violet. The atmosphere was deliberately sombre and penitential.

So, in the middle of it all, people needed to be reminded of what they were preparing for – the very joyful occasion of the birth of Jesus. In the midst of all the penance and fasting, this Sunday was conceived as a window of joy and brightness in anticipation of what was to come. On this day, too, the violet vestments in many churches give way to a less penitential colour, a pinkish red, a toned-down violet usually described as “rose”. As a reminder, there is a similar break, ‘Laetare Sunday’, during the Lenten season.

Why rejoice?
And why should we be rejoicing? Because we are soon to remember that the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, came to live among us as a human being and be one of us:

And the Word [who has the nature of God] became flesh and lived [literally ‘pitched his tent’] among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

And further, we rejoice because he the Lord brings such good news. The First Reading quotes, from the prophet Isaiah, a text which Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, will apply to himself:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because the Lord has anointed me…

In so speaking, Jesus clearly identifies himself with the anointed king who is the Messiah and Saviour of God’s people. And why has he come?

…he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…

The Scriptures, written at a time when poverty and suffering were the lot of the majority, certainly speak of those who are materially poor, of those who are really rotting (often unjustly) in prisons, those who are physically afflicted – the blind, the disabled and those suffering with diseases like leprosy (with its concomitant alienation and marginalisation from ordinary society). And there are still all too many places in our high-tech world where the situation of hundreds of millions has not yet changed in this regard.

Other forms of poverty
But even for those of us who live on islands of abundance and prosperity, there are other forms of poverty (social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual); other forms of captivity (compulsions, obsessions, addictions, consumerism…); the blindness and deafness of those who can see no real life meaning in all of the plenty they pursue; the muteness of those who have nothing constructive or creative to say; the disability of those who are socially and emotionally crippled, who play at sex but do not know love; and the leprosy of isolation and loneliness in the midst of the crowds.

If the Lord has really come to liberate us from all of this, then we surely have cause to rejoice:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
…for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…

The coming of Jesus is a promise to all of us of salvation, that is, a real wholeness and integrity in our lives, which is the complete opposite of lives fragmented by fear and the never-satisfied desire to possess.

And it is this wholeness and integrity that is salvation and not just getting a last-minute passport on our deathbed to play a harp forever in the clouds. Salvation is a real experience which we are all being called to share in our lives here and now. If we have not yet had that experience, then we can say that Christmas has never really come into our lives. We have not really met Jesus yet, the Jesus who makes us whole, who frees us from our forms of captivity.

Be happy always
The Second Reading continues the theme of joy that comes to us through Jesus. “Rejoice always” may seem a rather unreasonable demand. Yet, for the true Christian, happiness is the underlying experience of daily living, even if, now and then, there are painful problems to be deal with. Fr Tony de Mello used to say that each one of us has right now all we need to be happy. For, if I am not happy now, I never will be. The reading says:

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies…

A key to our enduring happiness is an unconditional openness to where God leads us and a readiness to speak out and act boldly in his name.

In this we have the example of John the Baptist, who is the focus of the Gospel passage from the Prologue of John’s Gospel:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

We have here a clear assertion of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus is the light and John is a witness to the light. It might be helpful for us to re-read those opening verses of today’s Gospel and replace the name of John with our own name. What it says should be just as true of every baptised person as it is of John.

For each one of us, by our baptism and our membership in Christ’s family, has been sent not, obviously, to be the original Light but to give witness to the Light. The Sermon on the Mount speaks of us as “the light of the world”. We are to be the light in the same way as the moon is in its reflection of the sun.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the coming of God into our lives through Jesus, we need also to remind ourselves that we have been called to be the means to bring Jesus into other people’s lives.

Light in darkness
At Christmas time, our cities and towns are bathed in light. But so many have no idea that this light symbolises our Lord Jesus, the Light of the World, born among us at this time. And we may ask ourselves: Into the lives of how many people this Christmas will we bring the Light of Jesus? How many will experience Jesus being reborn within them through our witnessing?

There are so many people out there who live in darkness. There are so many who are poor in so many ways, even though they may be financially well-off. So many who lack real freedom, the freedom to choose truth and love in all they do and say. So many who are deafened by the consumerist din around them. So many, in the midst of all the superficial jollity, who feel lonely, unwanted, rejected, marginalised. So many broken hearts amid all the party-going. There are people who simply hate Christmas because it only increases their inner pain and deep sadness.

So many out there are waiting. Waiting for us to shine the light of Christ on them and to help them turn their lives into experiences of joy, of wholeness and integrity. 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.

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