Sunday of week 3 of Advent (B)

Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11; 1 Thess 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 – many of us can still remember when 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, today 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”. (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 a human being and lived [literally ‘pitched his tent’] among us” (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 has been given to me for 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? Why has he been sent? “He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison; to proclaim a year of grace from the Lord.”

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 handicapped – the blind, the lame and those afflicted 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 in islands of abundance and prosperity, there are other forms of poverty (social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual); other forms of captivity (compulsions, obsessions, addictions, trapped in consumerism…); the blindness and deafness of those who can see no real life meaning in all of the plenty they pursue; the dumbness of those who have nothing constructive or creative to say; the lameness 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 exult for joy in the Lord…for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation, he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity.” 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. “Be happy at all times” 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. “Never try to suppress the Spirit or treat the gift of prophecy with contempt,” says the Reading. 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. “A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He was not the light, only a witness to speak for 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 city is 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 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 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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