11 Dec. 3rd Sunday of Advent
Is 61:1-2, 10-11. The inspired prophet was anointed by God and sent to bring good news to the poor. Jesus used this text to announce the programme of his own ministry.
1Thess 5:16-24. St. Paul tells the Thessalonians how they ought to live as they wait for the second Coming of Christ
Jn 1:6-8,19-28. John the Baptist makes it very clear that he is not the Saviour. His task is humbler: to prepare a welcome for the Lord who coming among his people.
Theme: Paul urges his christians to be happy always. The world is full of experts on happiness, but also of unhappy people. Paul’s own blueprint: prayer, gratitude and a generous response to the Holy Spirit.
Joy in the Faith
Today’s readings glimmer with joyful expectation. Israel radiates as a joyful bride coming to her bridegroom adorned for a lavish, oriental wedding. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians continue the theme of hope and joy in a community that lives by the life of Christ. And St John, in the gospel, pictures the work of John the Baptist, who came to witness to God’s light upon this earth.
This is not a joyousness without responsibility. It’s a joy that is found when people find and carry out their true mission in life. Isaiah speaks of one anointed and sent to bring good news to the oppressed – words that were adopted by Jesus to describe his own life’s purpose – just as they should also be made real in the life of every Christian. Those privileged to share in Jesus’ spiritual life must also share in his concerns and desires.
I think there are two distinct ideas in today’s readings that go well together. One is the spiritual joy that marks the Christian faith, that we are waiting for the coming of the Lord, and our entry into a life of eternal communion with God. The other is the willingness to bear our share of the Christian work-load, to do our bit, in our time, to realise the goals of Jesus in our world. I’d like to hear a homily focussed on one of these, without totally forgetting the other. In these times of economic austerity and budget cuts that are endlessly debated, is no harm to be reminded of the blessings in our lives, our reasons to be joyful. Mention, for example, the love we enjoy with our family and friends, the pleasure of meeting new people, of awakening some dormant talent by taking a course of adult education; the solidarity we feel in our local community when people willingly help their neighbours in their needs; the consolation to be found in prayer. Many examples can be named, to illustrate God’s blessing in our lives: reasons to be joyful. Like the northern Irish writer C.S. Lewis, we too can be “surprised by joy,” and re-discover gladness and meaning in life.
The other aspect is our advent-mission to help the needy, if we are to carry on “the project of Jesus” – the commitment he always showed to people on the margins. Practical examples of his “good news for the poor” can be pointed out, according to the life-situation of the worshippers. Our homilist must try to persuade those whose lives are peaceful and prosperous not to be afraid to let the pain of the needy come through to them and touch them. The sort of carefree joy that lets us shut our eyes to the seamier side of life, and “pass by on the other side,” is not the authentic joy announced in today’s reading. Care for our neglected neighbours may stand in a certain tension with our personal sense of joy, but the two can and should be blended into the lifestyle of anybody who wants to build their life on Jesus.
Happy Christmas: these are probably the two most used words in the world at this time of the year. We may already have written it on our Christmas cards. I think we have a complex about it. With so many well-wishers, we almost feel obliged to be happy at Christmas. We certainly work hard at it, spending money we can ill afford, exchanging gifts that rarely satisfy, indulging ourselves to saturation point. “Christmas comes but once a year’, we say, topping up our glass again. If we cannot be happy, we can certainly be merry. There is a quiet desperation about the whole business. “How did the Christmas go?” we ask each other a week later. “Not so bad,” is the invariable reply, scarcely concealing our disappointment.
St Paul’s advice: “Be happy at all times!” would seem a tall order, particularly from a man who was at the receiving end of more than his share of the world’s nastiness. But it does strike a universal chord. The search for happiness is relentless. Our right to pursue it is enshrined in constitutions. It is the common goal we all share, mystic and addict, hermit and hedonist, saint and sinner. If religion has any claim on our lives, it is because it promises happiness. “The opium of the people,” Marx dismissed it contemptuously. “Pie in the sky when you die,” taunted his atheistic followers.
Paul’s recipe is deceptively simple: Prayer and gratitude. Pray constantly and for all things give thanks to God. Thousands have taken him literally and dedicated themselves to a life of prayer in monasteries. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and others have reached the same conclusion independently. We should not casually dismiss the witness of so many lives. In former communist lands they are reopening churches to alleviate the misery of half a century of indoctrinated atheism. There is a spiritual famine in the West too. The crowded pubs and the empty church tell their own story. We are drowning our sorrows instead of solving our problems with the help of God. We have exchanged a good time for true happiness. But Jesus says, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.” Prayer gives life its direction and problems their perspective. It gets priorities right and gives what money cannot buy, peace of mind. The quiet stragglers emerging from church in the evening may compare unfavourably with the noisy crowd leaving the pub a few hours later. The reality is certainly the reverse.
Look at Mary. Think of the young girl with her premature pregnancy, her first delivery in sordid surroundings, her forced flight out of the country with her baby. Think of the woman who spent her life in the obscurity of a backward village, whose only intrusion into the limelight was in middle age to watch her only son executed as a dangerous revolutionary. And read again her Magnificat, today’s responsorial psalm. “God who is mighty has done great things for me.”
Baptist and Church
If we think of John the Baptist as a symbol of the church, we can get a better understanding of today’s gospel. The call is to prepare, to be ready, and to have a great sense of expectation about something that already is, but which is coming to completion.
In recent years in Dublin, the authorities have decided to tackle a long-running problem where a high percentage of water was escaping from the water mains because of age, corrosion, and general wear and tear. Road after road after road has been dug up. Everywhere you drive, you are faced with detours, three lanes reduced to two, etc. leading at times to chaotic traffic problems. There is a pattern to the work. It begins with signs, with warnings, with dates when the work will begin. There is a whole process of preparing people in a particular area for what is going to happen over the following few weeks, and how they can prepare to respond, to co-operate, and to tolerate. Despite all the signs, you often notice an air of total surprise when the morning arrives, and the drivers discover that the road is dug up, and the traffic is reduced to a crawl. The annoyance is understandable, but the surprise is not. Has it something to do with the fact that the warning notices, and all the advance publicity has gone unheeded? I can be all in favour of renovation of public services, re-settling travellers, welcoming refugees, but not on my doorstep.
The opening of the gospel is simple and direct. God sent John the Baptist into the world to tell everybody about the light that was coming, to enlighten their darkness, and to lead them into the fullness of light and life. John himself was not the light; rather was he a witness to the light. In other gospel accounts, we have John pointing the way to Jesus. That, to me, is the role each of us has to play, in some way.
First Reading: Book of Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
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,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
Second Reading: First Epistle to the Thessalonians 5:16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
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. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.