The Word for Sunday: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121414.cfm
Is 61: 1-4, 8-11
1 Thes 5: 16-24
Jn 1: 6-8. 19-28
When my Father was going through treatment for cancer a neighbor gave him a poster that was a kind of tongue in cheek. On the poster we saw a rough looking cowboy, leaning over a bar with a drink in his hand. The figure had a scowl on his face and the caption said: “Someone told me ‘Cheer up, things could be worse.’ So, I cheered up and sure enough, things got worse!”
While we may laugh at the sarcasm of this scene most of us would much rather hear something truly joyful that actually does cheer us up when we are down. That kind of humor only goes so far.
But on this third Sunday of Advent we really do hear something that should bring all of us great joy, as it did the down trodden people of John the Baptist’s time and that of the early Christians formed by St. Paul. Our second reading for this Sunday from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians begins: “Rejoice always . . . In all circumstances give thanks.”
Paul was no naïve preacher out of touch with reality or trying to be sarcastic like the poster given to my Father. Paul’s conviction that God is forever with us in the person of Jesus Christ is our daily hope that roots our faith. In spite of what life may bring us, we never give up hope that Christ has saved us and all has a purpose and meaning, even if we don’t understand the reason for things. We aren’t just on the roller coaster of life going nowhere or wandering around without some direction or purpose. So, this third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudate Sunday, or “Joy” Sunday, and is placed here in order to remind us not only that the Christmas season is very near but also to hear the voice of the baptizer in our day and time.
What is it about John’s message that is right for us to hear? The historical context is interesting to know why the baptizer was such an attractive figure.
For hundreds of years there had been no official prophets among the Jewish people. The ones we often hear from, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, were long past. As long as the prophets spoke among the people, they recognized the active presence of God among them. Although these prophets were all generally treated badly by authorities, still the common people felt that the position of a prophet of God was a significant sign of God’s faithfulness to his people. But for hundreds of years before the baptizer appeared, no one claimed that position. So, the people wondered what happened and if God had abandoned them for life was tough and now a foreign oppressive government had taken captive of their ancient country again.
Suddenly, a voice cries out in the desert in the same spirit of their ancient prophets and his message raised hope that maybe now was the time that the Messiah would come. Or, in fact, that John may be the One. So, priests and Levites from Jerusalem appear before John and grill him about his credentials. What right does he have to be preaching in God’s name? They ask the simple question: “Who are you?”
John leads them through a process of elimination – a search for the truth of his identity. John, to each of their questions says essentially – “No, I am not the Christ, the prophet Elijah or the Prophet.”
Then he offers what was read as a fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecy hundreds of years before: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert . . .” His purpose is to point to one greater and say in essence: “There HE is.” This Voice, as St. Augustine wrote, prepares us for the Word to come.
Once understood this identification must have filled many people with great joy. In the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and longing for a new vision and a new hope, John prepares the people for the time and the person about to come who will be the long awaited answer to their age-old hope kept alive for centuries.
While many must have felt joyful in anticipation, this time of Advent reminds us that the joy of this time is far more a conviction than a feeling. To be convinced that God would ultimately work out his plan is a conviction that in spite of what may seem hopeless or our endless reasons to not be joyful we are hopeful nonetheless because we know that God has come and is present with his people.
So, where is our joy today? Maybe you feel more like that old gnarled cowboy who was a kind of Scrooge figure. Maybe this has not been an especially joyful year for you. You’ve been juggling concerns about health with limited finances. The job is all right but not especially fulfilling and you hope for something better in the new year. Maybe adult children still haven’t returned to the practice of their early Catholic faith or it has been a tough year for grandparents and you’ve had to make some uncomfortable decisions about caring for them. Maybe life has just been more of a roller coaster than a smooth highway.
Yet, do we truly believe that God is with us? Where do we go for strength and comfort when times are rough? If we view joy as a conviction and not a feeling then we can know that if we are convinced God lives among us and walks with us in our joys and sorrows. As St. Paul implies today God is with us “in all circumstances” we can rest in a joy rooted in God’s promise.
The Baptist offered more than a political leader. He raised the expectation for moral and spiritual change in hearts and lives. The voice of John plays a key role not only at this point in Advent but overall as a voice crying out in what may seem to be a desert for us today.
Terrorism, war, political maneuvering, forms of corruption, disrespect for human life, or whatever the disease of the month may be. We hear it all on the news.
But, the words of Pope Francis remind us of good news strong enough to give us a reason for hope. In his letter entitled The Joy of the Gospel our Holy Father writes: There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty, that when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.” (EG, # 6).
Because we are loved, God sent John the Baptist and St. Paul reminds us: “In all circumstances give thanks.” (1 Thes. 5: 17).
O God, who see how your people
faithfully await the feast of the Lord's Nativity,
enable us, we pray,
to attain the joys of so great a salvation
and to celebrate them always
with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.
(Collect of Sunday)