3rd Sunday in Advent
Theme: Society finds it so hard to tolerate dissent that those who step out of line are often harshly treated and even risk their lives. At great risk, John the Baptist spoke out for justice, against the corrupt authorities of his day. Only by doing so could he prepare his people for the coming of Christ. At the present time, we need capable, honest people to take the risk of entering public service and going forward for election, in order to serve the common good.
Is 35:1-6,10. God’s presence among us is the great source of courage for believers. Today, Isaiah speaks of what God can do in our time of need: he can open our eyes and turn the barren desert of our life into a blossoming garden.
Jas 5:7-10. Our faith does not guarantee us constant success, or even an easy time in this life. His apostle, James urges us to be patient and to follow the noble example of courage shown to us by others.
Mt 11:2-11. The compassionate cures of Jesus show him clearly as the awaited Saviour. From his prison cell, John the Baptist is confirmed in this faith and so is ready to face his execution by king Herod.
First Reading: Book of Isaiah 35:1-6, 10
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus
it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Resp. Psalm: Ps 146:6-10
It is the Lord who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers.
He upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John : “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
‘Be Happy’ (Gaudete)
Be happy. These are the central words in today’s Mass. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice. The Lord is near. Rejoicing Sunday. Today the candle on the wreath is pink, not purple as on the other Sundays of Advent; to express the joy felt at the nearness of the Lord.
We all want to be happy. Some people seem to be happy by nature; others mournful by nature. Here is the story of a priest who always preached mournful sermons. He was asked by his parish priest to preach about St. Joseph instead, as he was a cheerful man. The following Sunday the priest spoke about Joseph who happened to be a carpenter and as a result spent a lot of his time making coffins and here we go again with sad, sad tales.
Three things about happiness: first, happiness is right now. We convince ourselves that life will be better when we get married, have a baby, then another. Then we are frustrated that the kids are not old enough and we will be more content when they are. After that we are frustrated that we have teenagers to deal with. We will certainly be happy when they are out of that stage. We tell ourselves that our life will be complete when our spouse gets his or her act together. The truth is there is no better time to be happy than right now.
Second, somebody has said ‘if you are happy, let your face know’. Maybe we could begin to be more joyful by taking a peek in the mirror and asking ourselves: does my face look like the face of someone who has heard the good news of the Gospel, namely that I am loved unconditionally by God?
Third, according to Ron Rolheiser joy will come to us if we set about actively trying to create it for others. If I go about my life demanding that others carry me rather than seeking to carry them; feeding off others rather than feeding them; demanding that others meet my needs rather than trying to meet theirs, joy will never find me no matter how hard I party or try to crank up good cheer
Seeing God at work
The book which comes last in the Canon of Sacred Scripture is the Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse. It was written at a period of persecution and tremendous hardship for the members of the infant Church. Anyone who reflects on the last sentences of that book cannot but be touched by the longing there expressed that God might come and release his people from the suffering they were enduring.
The Church is referred to as the Bride, (the Bride of Christ), and the author says “The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” Let everyone who hears say, “Come.” The one who guarantees these revelations repeats his promise: Indeed, I am coming soon. Amen, come Lord Jesus.” In this period leading up to Christmas, we too should be giving voice to that same intense longing. “Courage, do not be afraid. Look your God is coming,” the liturgy reminds us. Our God is coming to save us. We might this morning ask ourselves what salvation means to us. From what does Christ save us? The answer, in the main, is twofold. He saves us firstly from sin, and secondly from death. But most of us can admit that we tend to be offhand and casual about sin, and rather dubious about salvation from death, the inevitable end of every living thing.
However, about sin, if we look about us, we can see the definite results of sin in the community, in society. It can lead to divisions and strife, to violence against innocent victims, to extortion and robbery. Where there is bitterness and lack of compassion, where there is selfishness and the relentless pursuit of one’s own interests and desires without regard for the rights of others, there is sin.
In complete contrast the example of Christ, and even more so the merits gained by Christ, who was completely at one with the will of the Father and the promptings of God’s Holy Spirit, Christ who gave of himself for others, who was the one for others, even to the extent of laying down his life for them, all these can bring about a change in those who sincerely invite Christ into their lives, a change which can counteract the evil tendencies which are the results of sin. And if we ask how Christ has conquered death, the answer is that by his resurrection he has removed the fear of death from those who have faith in him, for he has given a solemn promise that, if we but believe, we also shall rise from the dead as he did. Instead of feeling doomed to extinction, we can say in the words of scripture “Oh death where is your sting, death where is your victory?” (1 Cor 15:55).
Furthermore, on his final night on earth, Jesus left us, as his last testimony, this Holy Eucharist which we are now celebrating, as a sign and guarantee that this will come to pass. “They who eat my body and drink my blood shall have life in them, and I will raise them up on the last day.” If our faith in the promises of Jesus wavers, we are reassured by his answer to the query of John the Baptist in today’s gospel, “Are you the one who is to come or have we got to wait for someone else?’
Obviously John also was going through a crisis of faith, for before his imprisonment he had said of Jesus, “I am the witness that he is the Chosen One of God” (Jn 1:34). Jesus’ reply to the disciples of John, who had put the question, was to go back and tell John, not what Jesus was saying, but rather what he was doing. John, with his knowledge of the Old Testament, would then understand that in the healing of the sick, the lame, the blind, was clearly revealed the sign which the prophet Isaiah declared would denote the coming of the promised Messiah. God was at work in the actions of Jesus.
But the significance of the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, goes deeper than any physical cure. In Christ those who are blind to the truth about themselves and God have their eyes opened, in Christ those who falter in their pursuit of what is honourable and just and pure have their steps strengthened, in Christ those who were deaf to the voice of God and conscience begin to listen, in Christ those who were dead and powerless in the grip of sin are restored to newness and richness of life, in Christ the poorest are endowed with the riches of God. This is the season when we are called to live in the thought of Jesus as he once came, and as he will come again for each one of us. It is the time to desire his second coming from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of his coming on that first Christmas (Cardinal Newman).
All Things New
1. Not a throwaway God
In our consumer society, when things breaks or is worn down, it is often easier to discard and replace them with a newer model (car, T.V., shoes etc.), than to pay for repairs. We even do it with some organs of the body itself (artificial arteries, heart-valves.) But when we ourselves break down, and fall into sin, God does not discard us; rather, He aims to repair us, make us well again. His mighty work of creation is equalled by the “Re-creation,” the blessings by which God helps us make a better job of our lives. Symbol of this is the way He makes the desert into a fruitful garden, pouring on the life-giving water of His Grace.
2. Saviour of the Poor
Our Lord’s miracles were done to show this aspect of God. His mercy has no limits, for poor people in need. Sickness, blindness, poverty and sin may make a man seem of less value in the sight of others, but not in the sight of God. Far from it. Jesus shows that sorrow and suffering attract his most genuine sympathy. He is the Saviour of the Poor, curing them of diseases, so that they can again face life with hope. What a terrible thing if we Christians value people only for their money, their talents, their sex-appeal, or their sheer usefulness to ourselves. Then we could have no part of Christ’s spirit within us.
3. Could John have doubted?
Why did John the Baptist send from his prison cell that urgent question to Jesus: “Are you He that is to come?” Hadn’t John recognised our Lord as the Messiah several months previously, at the Jordan, when he proclaimed Him publicly as the Lamb of God? Did John, faced with almost certain death under Herod, have doubts or second thoughts about Jesus? Some say no, John only asked the question for the sake of his followers, who needed confirmation of their faith from Christ himself. But if John did have doubts, it was because of the peaceful way that Jesus behaved, not at all like the violent revolutionary the Jews expected as their Messiah. The answer to his question came when Jesus told him what the true Messiah would be like: healer of the sick, consoler of the suffering, preacher of freedom and truth to the poor. In this way, John’s faith in Jesus was made strong, giving him courage to stand up against Herod, and accept the martyr’s death.
4. Not a magic formula
“It is no secret what God can do; what he’s done for others, he’ll do for you.” Yes, we can be sure and certain that God will provide for our needs. But the way He does it may not be the exact way we would choose. It may be that He has marked out for us a hard way, like that of the Baptist – in that case, His help does not take away our problem, but helps us to face it bravely. Jesus himself did not cure all the sick in his own day, not even all the sick in Nazareth. If he restored some (a fraction) to bodily health, it was a sign of the inward health he wants us all to have. He occasionally works visible miracles, as encouragement and reminder; his inward miracles are more frequent, patience, self-control, joy and charity.
5. Sure, yet able to patiently wait
So we need an open mind, as we ask the Lord’s help today in our needs. On the one side, sure that he can and will repair the worn-out, sinful damage in our lives, on the other side, willing to let Christ help us in his own time, and in his own way. As St James puts it so well: “Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.” With this spirit of confidence and patience, we can face any number of problems in life, and face even our death in peace, like John the Baptist.
Signs of God’s presence
One could take as theme the signs of God’s presence. The pictures of the first reading are evocative of luxuriant richness of God’s goodness shown even in the natural world. Then the healing of the various human disabilities underlies that God is interested in all human beings for their good, not to condemn them. Along the same lines one could point out how the Gospel healings go beyond those enumerated in the prophecy. The true image of God as portrayed in these passages together with the responsorial psalm could furnish a useful homily for some congregations.
Another option would be to develop the aspects of human response. The various readings lay emphasis on courage and patience in the face of adversity. Possibly there is much adversity in everyone’s life from personal struggles or misunderstandings and everyone can benefit from encouragement. The images used in the first reading could help, weak hands, trembling knees, faint hearts. In the midst of human weakness like the illnesses of the Gospel God shows his power. There is a certain paradox in the fact that God’s strength to heal would not be visible to us without painful disability to illuminate it. One could draw out that God is often present in situations where apparently he is not tangible and that we can perceive only part of his plan. Our faith is in One who is at the door to use the phrase of James. Our faith proves itself in its steadfastness in the fact of suffering, internal or external. Faith can mean waiting on God, as the Baptist waited in the desert for long years.
Another option is offered by the idea of the Lord’s redeemed in the first reading. This great vision anticipates a joyful gathering together of people set free by God and united in celebrating on Mount Sion. Setting prisoners free, giving sight to the blind are but two of the aspects of God’s faithfulness that are praised in the Responsorial psalm. Jesus shows that face of God in the Gospel For the modern day Christian these scriptural symbols can be explained as pledges of the inner freedom to love that God gives us through his Spirit. Our weaknesses are ways in which we are hemmed in our ability to reach out to God and to others in a selfless love. True rejoicing involves being in a loving communion with God and others as is prefigured in the first reading and this end-time situation has its roots in our being through the Gift of God to his Christian redeemed, the Spirit of Sonship that sets us free.
And yet, despite his coming to save, to give sight to the blind, raise the dead etc. his good news could still be a stumbling block. Despite his healing achievement, there are still those who cry out “How long, 0 Lord?. How long shall I harbour sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day? (Ps 13:2-3.) The continuation of this human cry two thousand years after the advent of Christ raises questions about the fulfilment of our hopes. Those hopes were concentrated, in early Christianity, in the expectation of the return of Christ (cf. Acts 1:1-11 Thess 4:13-18; Rev 21:1 ff..) They expected this final deliverance to come very soon. It did not come soon, it has still not come, Yet looking in hope for that second coming is still part of the meaning of advent.
When the full history of the Soviet Union’s turning aside from its former brutal communist regime is rewritten, one man’s name will loom large. His name is Andrei Sakharov, and he died this week in December, some years ago. He was a most unlikely prophet, a small, quiet-spoken, scholarly man, with none of the attributes usually associated With great public figures. For years, he confronted what must have been the greatest totalitarian regime the world has ever seen. He was a distinguished scientist; in fact, he was one of Russia’s greatest scientists of this century. He could have had anything the Soviet system had to offer its favourite sons. Instead he chose to fight it, for the freedom and the civil rights of its citizens. For this he paid dearly, spending years in prison and labour camps in Siberia. But he never wavered.
Sakharov was a Russian Jew and in some striking ways bears, comparison to that other Jew in Palestine two thousand years ago, John the Baptist. His too was a lone “voice crying in the wilderness.” He spoke out courageously against the corruption of a powerful regime. He resisted all the blandishments his talents would have earned him. He could have “worn fine clothes and lived in palaces” by the standards of ordinary Russians in that harsh regime. And when they could not buy his silence, they locked him away. He was in prison when the world first heard of him. From there, his message of dissent escaped to make disciples in Russia and abroad. He was no “reed swaying in the breeze.” His heroic dissent was a contagion which his cap tors were powerless to contain. Eventually, yielding to world opinion – he had been awarded the Nobel Prize while in prison – they were forced to release him. His health was irretrievably broken. Nevertheless, he continued his crusade. The seed he had sown in the wilderness so many years before was coming to harvest. Then almost within sight of the promised land, he died. Had he lived another few months he might have been, like a Lech Walesa or a Vaclav Havel, elected President of Russia. But he didn’t. Perhaps history will be all the kinder to him because of that.
As Christians, we should cherish our dissidents. So often today’s dissidents are tomorrow’s heroes. Recognition, if it comes at all, comes posthumously. They belong in the tradition of John the Baptist, whom Christ praised so warmly in today’s gospel. Melito of Sardis wrote in the second century:
If you wish to see the mystery of the Lord,
it is he who endures many things:
it is he who was in Abel murdered,
and in Isaac bound,
and in Jacob exiled, and in Joseph sold,
and in Moses exposed,
and in the lamb slain, and in David persecuted,
and in the prophets dishonoured.
Their role is best described by Isaiah in today’s reading:
Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees /and say to all faint hearts,
“Courage, Do not be afraid./ Look, your God is coming he is coming to save you.”