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Reflections for the III Sunday of Advent

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the sixth Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the readings stress the need for patience in those awaiting the rebirth of Jesus in their hearts and lives.

Is 35:1-6a, 10; Jas 5:7-10; Mt 11: 2-11

Introduction: The common theme running through today’s readings is one of joy and encouragement. The readings stress the need for patience in those awaiting the rebirth of Jesus in their hearts and lives.  They give us a message of hope—for people almost three millennia ago, for people at the beginning of the first millennium and for people today.  Today is called Gaudete Sunday because today’s Mass begins with the opening antiphon: “Gaudete in Domino semper,” i.e., “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Today, to express our joy in the coming of Jesus as our Savior, we light the rose candle, and the priest may wear rose vestments. Besides, this joyful spirit is marked by the third candle of our Advent wreath, which is 'rose colored,' and the 'rose colored' vestments are often used at the Eucharist, because they represent a lightening of the dark violet of the rest of the penitential season of Advent. They remind us of the color of the sky at the very brink of morning, when the sun is just beginning to come up. The horizon takes on a pale rose color that gradually gets redder and brighter as the sun rises. For faithful Christians, life is like a “long sunrise,” and death is the entrance into the bright, everlasting day” of eternal life. This is the reason why this Sunday is also called “Rose Sunday.”

Homily starter anecdotes:  Unfinished Play: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-184) was an American novelist and short story writer. When he died in 1864, he had on his desk the outline of a play he never got a chance to finish. The play centered around a person who never appeared on stage. Everyone talked about him. Everyone dreamed about him. Everyone waited for his arrival. But he never came. All kinds of minor characters described him. They told everybody what he would do. But the main character never appeared. –The Old Testament is something like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s play. It too ended without the main character’s appearing on the stage. Everyone talked about the Messiah, everyone awaited his arrival. But he never came in the Old Testament period. In today’s reading, we hear Isaiah describing what the Messiah would do by bringing salvation to all mankind. Today’s Gospel tells us that when the real Messiah came, even the last prophet and the Messiah’s herald, John the Baptist, could not believe that he was the expected Messiah. (Mark Link S. J. ) (

Scripture lessons summarized: The prophet Isaiah, in the first reading, encourages the exiled Jews in Babylon to rejoice because their God is going to liberate them from slavery and lead them safely to their homeland.  In the second reading, James the Apostle encourages the early Christians to rejoice and wait with patience for the imminent second coming of Jesus. Finally, in the first part of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus encourages John the Baptist in prison to rejoice by casting away his wrong expectations about the Messiah and simply accepting Jesus’ healing and preaching ministry as the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah.  In the second part of today’s Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus, the true Messiah, paying the highest compliments to John the Baptist as his herald and the last of the prophets, and giving special credit to the courage of John’s prophetic convictions, asking his listeners to rejoice in the greatness of his herald.

First reading: Is 35:1-6, 10 explained: Isaiah tries to stir up in his exiled brothers and sisters the hope of their return to Israel by assuring them of the saving power of Yahweh in their lives.  He reminds them that it was through their disloyalty to God that they had lost their liberty, had been taken as slaves to Babylon and had lived there in servitude for sixty years (598-538 BC).  The Jews were finally set free by Cyrus (who had captured Babylon), and were allowed to return to their native land, rebuild the Temple and serve their God once more as His Chosen People.  The prophet assures them that God will lead them back to their land in this second exodus (6th century B.C.), as He led their ancestors from Egypt to the Promised Land in the first exodus (13th century BC).  He is going to do three things for them.  1) He will transform the wasteland lying between their land of exile and Israel into a new Garden of Eden to facilitate their journey.  2) The weak and the sick will be strengthened for the journey.  3) They will reach their destination singing and crowned with glory.  The assurance of this second exodus is chosen for Advent, because both Exodus events foreshadow the coming of the Messiah. 

Second reading: James 5:7-10 explained: The expectation of Jesus' imminent return did not last very long in the early Church. Even within Saint Paul's lifetime, that expectation had waned.  The Apostles advised the Christians to bear witness to Christ through their heroic lives without waiting for the Parousia in their lifetime.  Hence, in the second reading, James encourages the fearful, frustrated and persecuted early Christians to be patient.  Like Isaiah, James tries to show his Christian community that what they have been hoping for was already happening.  Though he stresses patience and determination, James also reminds them that "the Judge stands at the gate."  Just as the prophets believed that what they were proclaiming was already happening, the Christians needed to behave as though the returned risen Jesus were already influencing their lives.  James uses the analogy of a farmer who must wait patiently for the ground to yield its fruit.  In the same way, we must trust that God is bringing abundance into our lives, although we cannot see it yet.  St. James' warning is clear:  If anyone among you has hitherto neglected his duties to God, let him listen now to that warning and put his conscience and his life right with God.

Gospel exegesis: The context: Today's Gospel describes how Isaiah's vision of Israel's glorious future is fulfilled unexpectedly by the coming of the promised Messiah and by his healing and preaching mission. But the Jews in general expected a political Messiah who would reestablish the Davidic kingdom after overthrowing the Roman government. Hence, most of them were scandalized by Jesus’ peaceful preaching and shameful death. The disciples of John the Baptist continued to insist that John was indeed the Messiah, and they awaited his return, causing problems to early Christians. Hence, all four Evangelists highlighted John’s important role as the Messiah’s herald but emphasized that John’s was a secondary and subordinate role in salvation history. Matthew, in the second part of today’s Gospel, presents Jesus, the true Messiah, as paying the highest compliments to John the Baptist as his herald and the last of the prophets, and to the courage with which John proclaimed his prophetic convictions.

John’s reasonable doubts. Scripture scholars over the centuries have wondered why John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he were the one who was to come. There are two possible explanations: 1) John knew that Jesus was the Christ and, as a prisoner, he wanted his disciples to follow Jesus as their new master. So, he sent them to ask Jesus this question and presumed that, once they had met Jesus, they would see for themselves that he was the Messiah and so would become followers of Jesus. 2)  John began to doubt Jesus’ identity as the promised Messiah. The silent healing, preaching, saving, and empowering ministry of Jesus was a surprise to John and to those who expected a fire-and-brimstone Messiah. Besides, Jesus had not yet fulfilled John's prediction that the One-to-come would baptize the repentant in the Holy Spirit. Nor did Jesus conform to popular Jewish beliefs about a warrior and a political Messiah who would bring political, social, and economic deliverance to Israel. Instead, Jesus pronounced blessings on the poor in spirit, the meek, and peacemakers (5:1-11).  He called his disciples to love their enemies (5:42-48).  He warned his disciples not to judge others (7:1-5). For John, these teachings might have seemed to weaken rather than to strengthen the Messiah’s cause. Furthermore, Jesus moved away from Jerusalem, the home of the Temple and the center of religious authority and began his ministry in Galilee among the common people (4:12).  John proclaimed the power of the coming Messiah to bring in a new age, and instead found himself imprisoned in the dungeon of Herod’s prison-fortress at Machaerus, southeast of the Dead Sea. He might have been wondering why the expected Messiah was not setting him free as Isaiah (61:1) had predicted. John might have found sympathetic doubters among his own disciples who might have wondered how the Messiah could leave their own teacher in prison, and how He could usher in the kingdom without political or military might.  These might  have been the reasons why John sent his disciples to dispel his doubt, asking: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

Generosity to dispel doubts meets humility to accept correction: Instead of criticizing Jesus or breaking away from him, John approached Jesus through his disciples.   The disciples asked Jesus whether he was the one to come or if they should look for another. John might have had his doubts, but he was open to hearing Jesus say that he was, indeed, the one! John must have recognized the Scriptural allusions behind Jesus' answer.  Isaiah 29:18 speaks of the deaf hearing and the blind seeing.  Isaiah 35:6 speaks of the lame leaping like a deer.  Isaiah 26:19 speaks of the dead becoming alive.  Isaiah 61:1 speaks of good news for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives and prisoners.  These were signs of the Messiah's coming.  Jesus could have rebuked John for his doubts, but instead offered him a blessing.  Jesus had not lived up to John's expectations, but John did not allow that to be a stumbling block (skandalizomia).  Soon enough, Jesus would deal with the people of his hometown, who took offense at him (13:57).  Complimenting John, Jesus says that John is the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 ("See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me"), presenting the Baptist as the end-time messenger, the forerunner of the Messiah. 

Life messages: 1) We need to learn how to survive a Faith crisis: From a theological perspective, this entire episode helps us to understand how the experience of a faith crisis can play a role in our spiritual and emotional development. If John the Baptist, even after having had a direct encounter with Jesus the Messiah, could question, doubt and question his Faith, then so can we.  If disillusionment is a necessary precondition for a more resilient faith, then we, too, must be open to its possibilities.  In moments of doubt, despair and disillusionment, we are, indeed, in good company. Occasional doubts – even horrifying doubts – are one thing, but doubts that persist in the face of every Biblical remedy demand careful attention. Let us remember the truth that all our Christian dogmas are based on our trust and faith in the Divinity of Jesus Who taught them, and on His Divine authority by which He authorized the Church to teach what He taught. It is up to us to learn our Faith in depth, so that God will be able to dispel our doubts.

2) “Go and tell others what you hear and see.”  In medieval times, this day—the Third Sunday of Advent—was called Gaudete Sunday, as an equivalent to Laetare Sunday during Lent. As we pray today, we also rejoice that the Lord does not fail to show his power and might.   We rejoice at the thought that Jesus is going to be reborn in our lives, deepening in us His gifts of love, mercy, forgiveness and the spirit of humble and sacrificial service during this Christmas season. During this season, let us joyfully share God’s bountiful grace, forgiveness, and mercy with others.   What Jesus commanded John’s disciples, he commands us as well:  Go and tell others what you hear and see. Despite the obvious “signs” and miracles, some people still rejected Jesus (CCC #548). Each of us must strive to interpret the “signs of the times,” and accept the help of the Church and the Holy Spirit (CCC #1788). 

3) We need to open our hearts and let God transform our lives: We, too, should be encouraged by today’s readings.  They remind us that our lives can also be transformed, if we are patient and place our trust in God. The message of Advent is that God is present among us, in our everyday lives.  We must prepare our hearts to recognize and welcome Him.  “If a man is the center of his [own] life, everyone around him becomes hell for him because everyone around him interferes with him and obstructs what he wants to do” (Jean Paul Sartre).  Let us believe in our hearts the Gospel message about Jesus given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Will we allow the Holy Spirit, through these Gospel reports, to create a metánoia (a change of thinking about God, ourselves, and the world) in us during Advent? 

4) Each of us is called to be “more than a prophet,” “more than a precursor,” more than someone who points to Jesus. We are called to be greater than a prophet, greater than John the Baptist, in our mission. We’re supposed to become Jesus’ voice, Jesus’ hands, Jesus’ feet, Jesus’ heart. As St. Teresa of Avila would say, “Christ has no body on earth now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth. Yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.” (Fr. Antony Kadavil).

12 December 2019, 11:32