Sunday of Week 3 of Advent (Year B Alternate Commentary)

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

ADVENT IS TRADITIONALLY a penitential time in preparation for Christmas. So in the liturgy vestments with a penitential purple colour are worn. In the old days, as some of us can still remember, there were also a few fast days during this time.

But today, the Third Sunday, is an exception. The theme today is one of joy and happiness. The first word of the Entrance Antiphon is “Rejoice”, in Latin gaudete, so today is also known as “Gaudete Sunday”.

Today then there is a relaxation of the penitential mood, a small opening to the coming celebrations. In many churches there are rose-coloured vestments instead of the more severe violet or purple. And you will notice that one of the candles lighting today on the Advent wreath is rose-coloured too. All this is an anticipation, like a “trailer” of the coming joy of Christmas.

This sentiment is repeated in the responsorial song: “My soul rejoices in God my Saviour.” These words and the whole of the canticle are from the great hymn that Mary sang when visiting her cousin Elizabeth. It is a hymn of liberation for the weak, the dispossessed, the marginalised, the hungry (in every sense of the word). The joy is because this promised liberation is going to become a reality through the coming of Jesus as Saviour and Liberator.

Good news for the poor

This liberation is also reflected in the First Reading from Isaiah. In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus began his public ministry, he chose this passage to read in the synagogue of his home town. And it is clear that he applied it to himself. He told the people then that this reading was being realised as they were hearing it read to them by him.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” Jesus is filled with the Spirit of God. The Lord has anointed him. The word Christ means “anointed one”; it is the Greek form of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’.

And for what has Jesus been anointed? “To bring good news to the poor and afflicted, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, the opening of prison to those who are bound…” The coming of Jesus means all these things: it is certainly a matter of rejoicing. For us this is the real meaning of Christmas and that is why we celebrate.

Encouragement from Paul

So, in the same frame of mind, Paul writes to the Christians of Thessalonika (in northern Greece) in today’s Second Reading. What he tells them is very fitting advice as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus – in Bethlehem, at the end of time and in our daily life: “Rejoice always: pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances… Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything… May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

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The theme of joy is not explicit in the Gospel but it is there under the surface. It speaks about John the Baptist. Compared to Jesus, his role is clearly secondary: “[John] came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light but came to bear witness to the light.”

It is clear that the religious leaders in Jerusalem were puzzled as to John’s role and identity. To their questions, he denies that he is the Anointed One, the Christ, the expected Messiah. Nor is he the prophet Elijah, who was expected to return just before the coming of the Messiah.

They keep pressing him: “What do you say of yourself? Who are you really?” He replies: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”

In that case they ask him, “If you are not the Messiah nor Elijah, why are you baptising?” “I baptise with water; but there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.” They must have found this reply very intriguing. Who could this Person be whose sandal straps John was not worthy to untie?

John’s role is plain: He is to clear the way for the coming of Jesus, who is the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. There is an air of expectation and excitement for Jesus to appear.

John – a model for us

What has this to say to us today? As we saw last week, John’s role 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 evangelising responsibility.

Like John, we are not the Light but we are called, by our baptism, to bear witness to the Light by all we say and do. To be honest, could we say that that is really an accurate description of our daily life?

So let us hear asked of ourselves the questions the religious leaders put to John: “What do you say of yourself?” Who are you really? What is your role in life? This is not a question about your career or what you spend most of your time doing. What is my ultimate role? Why do I do the things that I do? Is it just a question of money or of being busy and active? John the Baptist knew the answer to that question. How many of us do?

So, as we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas, we might look into ourselves and find the answer to that question: “Who are you? What do you say of yourself?” It is better to answer that question now than at the very end of one’s life. Then it will be too late.

Now is a time for us to count our blessings. And what better way to express our thanks for those blessings than by joyfully using them for the benefit of others? “Let your light shine before others that they may SEE your good works and come to praise our Father in heaven.”

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