Homily starter anecdote: St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) and Advent joy: Through her ministry in Jesus’ name, Mother Teresa brought untold blessings and joy to the poor who lay unattended and forgotten on our streets. When asked the source of her joy, Mother Teresa replied: “Joy is prayer -- joy is strength -- joy is love -- joy is a net of love. . . A joyful heart is the normal result of a heart burning with love . . . loving as He loves, helping as He helps, giving as He gives, serving as He serves, rescuing as He rescues, being with Him twenty-four hours, touching Him in His distressing disguise.” (Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God, Harper and Row, San Francisco: 1971). When Advent arrived every year, Mother Teresa’s life, continued to witness the joy which is true hallmark of every Christian and the rightful inheritance of all the poor. (http://stjohngrandbay.org/wt/client/v2/story/WT_Story.cfm?SecKey=151).
Introduction: Today is called “Gaudete Sunday” because today’s Mass (in its Latin, pre-Vatican II form), began with the opening antiphon: “Gaudete in Domino semper” --“Rejoice in the Lord always.” In the past, when Advent was a season of penance, the celebrant of the liturgy used to wear vestments with the penitential color of purple or violet. In order to remind the people that they were preparing for the very joyful occasion of the birth of Jesus, the celebrant wore rose-colored vestments on the third Sunday. (By the way, we have a similar break--Laetare Sunday-- during the Lenten season). Today we light the rose candle, and the priest may wear rose vestments, to express our joy in the coming of Jesus, our Savior. The primary common theme running through today’s readings is that of encouraging joy as we meet our need for the preparation required of us who await the rebirth of Jesus in our hearts and lives. The second common theme is that of bearing witness. The prophet Isaiah, Mary and John the Baptizer all bear joyful witness to what God has done and will do for His people.
Scripture readings summarized: The readings for the third Sunday of Advent remind us that the coming of Jesus, past, present and future, is the reason for our rejoicing. The first reading tells us that we should rejoice because the promised Messiah is coming as our Savior and liberator, saving us by liberating us from our bondages. The Responsorial Psalm of the day is taken from Mary's Magnificat, in which she exclaims: "My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit finds joy in God my Savior." Paul, in the second reading, advises us to “rejoice always” by leading blameless, holy and thankful lives guided by the Holy Spirit, because Christ is faithful to his promise that he will come again to reward us. Today’s Gospel tells us that John the Baptizer came as a witness to testify to the Light, i.e., Jesus. The coming of Jesus, the Light, into the world is cause for rejoicing as he removes darkness from the world. We should be glad and rejoice also because, like John the Baptizer, we, too, are chosen to bear witness to Christ Jesus, the Light of the world. We are to reflect Jesus’ Light in our lives so that we may radiate it and illuminate the dark lives of others around us. The joyful message of today’s liturgy is clear. The salvation we await with rejoicing will liberate both the individual and the community, and its special focus will be the poor and lowly, not the rich and powerful.
First reading explained, Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11: This section of Isaiah comes from the turbulent period when the Jews were trying to re-establish themselves in their homeland after enduring a generation of exile in Babylon. The prophet says of himself that God has anointed him with the Spirit and sent him to bring good news to those in need of it. The good news consists of the healing of the broken-hearted and the liberation of prisoners. Then the prophet expresses Israel's joy at the coming of God's salvation, using the image of wearing exceptionally beautiful clothes, as a bride and groom do at the wedding. He also uses the image of the earth in its bringing forth of new vegetation in the spring. He says, "I rejoice heartily in the Lord; in my God is the joy of my soul." This hope for the coming of salvation finds its fulfillment in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Inaugurating his public ministry in Nazareth, Jesus declared He was the fulfillment of this passage from Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21), because he had been anointed by the Spirit of God to bring good news to the poor. We rejoice at the fulfillment of the prophecy about Jesus in this passage.
Second Reading explained, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24: Paul was fond of the Thessalonians because they had received Jesus’ Gospel enthusiastically, and their example had helped others to embrace the Faith. But he was convinced that they needed the continued moral instruction which he offered them in this letter. The selection we read today contains Paul's practical suggestions for anyone trying to be a follower of God: "Do not stifle the spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test everything; retain what is good. Avoid any semblance of evil." He also commands us to "rejoice always and pray without ceasing.” We are to give thanks in all circumstances because that is the will of God for us in Christ Jesus. We, who believe in Jesus and have been united with him in his death and Resurrection, should be in a constant state of rejoicing, giving thanks to God for all that He has done for us in Jesus. Our joy here on earth, however, is not the fullness of joy waiting for us at Jesus’ second coming. Hence, Paul concludes his instruction with the prayer: "May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Gospel Exegesis: The context: Biblical studies made of the Dead Sea Scrolls during the past 50 years suggest that John was probably a member of the Judean Qumran wilderness community, the Essenes. This community was a group of people who had left Jerusalem a century before Jesus' birth because of a conflict with the Temple authorities. They waited there, a few miles from Jericho, for the Messiah to come and rectify the horrible injustice they had experienced. They occupied themselves with Scripture studies and purification, continually studying, copying and commenting on God's word. They also went through frequent baptismal rituals to symbolize their total dedication to God's will in living a life of spiritual purity. John's ministry seems to fit into what we know about Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls’ community. John preached a baptism of repentance, announced the imminent coming of God and gathered followers who, though not "official" Qumran members, followed some of its teachings.
The Biblical importance of today’s text: Bible scholars generally agree that the prologue (1:1-18) in John’s Gospel is a hymn, the overall purpose of which is to highlight the historical and theological significance of Jesus' origins as "Word," "true Light" and the "only Son." Verses 6-8(9) introduce John the Baptist in a manner that clearly distinguishes him from Jesus – “John himself was not the Light, but he came to testify to the Light." Some scholars maintain that the author of the Gospel may be making such a forceful differentiation in order to counter a sect of John’s disciples claiming that John the Baptist was the light and the Messiah, and not simply the one testifying to the Light. In John's Gospel, however, recurring references to the Baptist suggest that Jesus and John preached and baptized concurrently for some time (see John 3:22-30; 10:40-42). But, in all he did and said, the Baptist always bore witness to Jesus and his Messianic identity (John 1:6-8(9). “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the Light.” John 1:19-28 is an Advent text that calls us to remember the origins and purposes of Jesus with the kind of devotion that challenges us to be witnesses for Jesus. John the Baptizer demonstrates what it means to bear witness to the true Light coming into the world.
The why of Sanhedrin intervention: Why did the religious authorities in Jerusalem show concern for a marginal figure like John, who was attracting crowds to the wilderness and baptizing repentant sinners in the Jordan? The main reason was that, although John was the son of a devout rural priest, Zechariah, he did not behave like a priest. By his dress and diet, the Baptizer had distanced himself from the Jerusalem priests. He presented himself more like one of the older prophets who declared the will of God for the Jews. Hence, the Sanhedrin might well have felt it their duty to check up on John in case he was a false prophet. The Jerusalem priests also wanted to know whether John was an “action prophet,” attempting to lead a liberation movement against Roman rule. After questioning John, the delegation from the Jerusalem authorities concluded that John was only a harmless “oracular prophet,” who did not claim to be the Messiah. Another reason why the Sanhedrin kept a close eye on John was to find out why he baptized the locals. Baptism at the hands of men was not for Israelites, but rather for proselytes from other faiths. If he had been the Messiah, or even Elijah or the prophet, John had the right to baptize. The Jerusalem delegation finally came to the conclusion that John's baptismal rite was only a symbolic action, a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," a rite symbolizing purification and cleansing, a return to God before the promised Messiah arrived in their midst. Thus, they decided that there was no need to take any disciplinary action against John.
John’s humility: The evangelist John presents John the Baptizer as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3, "a voice in the desert" calling for Israelites to prepare a way for the coming of Jesus. John in his Gospel takes special care to stress the fact that Jesus surpasses John the Baptist. The Baptizer declares: "I am baptizing only with water; but there is One among you--you don't recognize him--and I am not worthy to untie the straps of his shoes.” There was a Rabbinic saying which stated that a disciple might do for his master anything that a servant did, except only to untie his sandals. That was too menial a service for even a disciple to render. So John said: "One is coming whose slave I am not fit to be." John's mission was only to “prepare the way.” Any greatness he possessed came from the greatness of the one whose coming he foretold. John is thus the great example of the man prepared to obliterate himself for Jesus. He lived only to point the way to Christ.
Bearing witness to Jesus is our mission as well as John’s: The idea that the Baptizer came as a witness to testify to the Light (Jesus), is found only in the Gospel of John. According John, Jesus is the Light of the world (John 8:12). Just as the dawn of each new day brings joy, the coming of Jesus, the Light of the world, causes us to rejoice. We, the Church, are called to bear witness to Christ by word and deed, in good times and bad—when it suits us and when it doesn't. The witness of the Church, ironically, has often been more faithful under persecution than under prosperity. We need to be messengers who point out Christ to others, just as John did. John the Baptist’s role as a joyful witness prepared the way for Jesus. John also provides an example for us because our vocation as Christians is to bear “witness” to Christ by our transparent Christian lives.
Life messages: 1) We need to bear witness to Christ the Light: By Baptism we become members of the family of Christ, the true Light of the world. Jesus said: “You are the light of the world.” Hence, our mission as brothers and sisters of Christ and members of his Church is to reflect Christ’s Light to others, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun. It is especially important during the Advent season that we reflect Christ’s unconditional love and forgiveness. There are too many people who live in darkness and poverty, and who lack real freedom. There are others who are deafened and blinded by the cheap attractions of the world. Also, many feel lonely, unwanted, rejected, and marginalized. All these people are waiting for us to reflect the Light of Christ and to turn their lives into experiences of joy, 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 joy into the lives of others. Let us remember that Christmas is not complete unless we show real generosity to those who have nothing to give us in return.
2) What should we do in preparation for Christmas? The Jews asked the same question of John. His answer was: “Repent and reform your lives, and prayerfully wait for the Messiah.” This means that we have to pray from the heart and pray more often. Our Blessed Mother, in her many apparitions, has urgently reminded us of the need for more fervent and more frequent prayer. Let us remember that the Holy Mass is the most powerful of prayers. We must become a Eucharistic people, receiving the living presence of Jesus in our hearts so that we may be transformed into His image and likeness. We encounter Jesus in all the Sacraments. Regular monthly Confession makes us strong and enables us to receive more grace in the Eucharist. Let us also listen daily to God speaking to us through the Bible. Perhaps, we may want to pray the rosary daily and fast once a week all year round, not just during Advent and Lent. After all, we sin all year round, so why not fast also all year round? Let us also find some spare time to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Let us forgive those who have offended us and pray for those whom we have offended. Finally, let us share our love with others in selfless and humble service, “doing small things but with great love" (Mother Teresa). As we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the coming of God into our lives we need also to remind ourselves that we have been called to be the means of bringing Jesus into other people's lives. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)