Third Sunday of Advent (B)
(Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11; 1st. Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28)
Advent is a time of expectation … what are we to look for, what should we prepare ourselves to expect?
On reading today’s Gospel I was somewhat surprised at St. John’s version of the contre-temps between John the Baptist and the priests and Levites from Jerusalem, because John does not give us those words of the Baptist reported by all three of the Synoptic Gospels, saying that though he himself baptized with water, the One to Come would baptize with the Holy Spirit, and also -- according to Matthew and Luke -- with fire.
Now the cause of this omission is not something I do not want to discuss here, but the result of it might be significantly helpful for us today, for, undoubtedly, the mention of the Holy Spirit suggests supreme, sublime, power, while that of fire confirms the impression of power and colours it, so to speak, with one of threat. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, simply reports the Baptist as saying:
I baptize with water; but there is One among you Whom you do not recognize, the One Who is coming after me, Whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.
There we have it: just pure expectation … indeed, tantalizing expectation because the expected One is already present, among them at that very moment -- someone wonderfully holy -- and yet, they are not seeing Him!!
And here, Mother Church, in her Spirit-gifted wisdom, comes to direct our expectancy this Advent, for she sets before us a most beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, and to announce a year of favour from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.
According to that, we are expecting One the Lord has endowed with His Spirit to bring glad tidings to the lowly, bestow healing, restore liberty and grant freedom: all favours from the Lord in vindication of His people. No threatening mention of power, nor one of destructive -- though purging -- fire …. Just Someone wonderful, coming peaceably with so much that is totally desirable and longed-for in those days and in our present state.
Now notice what joy, gladness, and blessing results for the recipients:
All who see them shall acknowledge them as a race the LORD has blessed. I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; For he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, Like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels. As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, So will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.
How wondrously does Isaiah who begins:
All who see them shall acknowledge them as a race the LORD has blessed
continue with words referring to but one … a woman most beautiful … as if he knew, prophetically, that indeed, only one, Mary the Immaculate, would be able to fully receive and possess all those blessings from the Lord. Nevertheless, she represents us, and all faithful disciples of Jesus do indeed receive their measure of His blessings; of this Mother Church assures us with her choice of the second reading taken from St. Paul’s exhortation to his converts in Thessali:
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in all circumstances give thanks. May the God of peace make you perfectly holy: (for He) the One Who calls you is faithful and He will also accomplish it.
Without doubt, I believe, all of us will wholeheartedly agree that Mary, our Mother, is indeed rejoicing in the Lord as depicted by Isaiah and in accord with all our readings today; but the question is, does she represent us therein, does our experience of the Christian faith and of life in the world today cause us heartfelt rejoicing as Mary’s true children?
Again, without doubt, it did and does bring such joy and happiness to God’s saints and Mother Church’s most committed members; again, it can bring and does offer such joy and happiness to all faithful disciples of Jesus and sincere members of the Church. But why, indeed, do we come across so many lapsed or lapsing Catholics, hear so often of Christians, who are unsure disciples of Jesus, or dissatisfied with their experience of faithful living?
We should look again at Isaiah’s reading today, for he rightly foresaw and portrayed the great glory and abounding goodness and generosity of the One to Come; however, he also was prophetically endowed and enabled to appreciate that only a unique individual -- the Immaculate Mary of Nazareth -- would be able to receive and possess, would allow the Lord to freely bestow on her, all those heavenly blessings. What then, hinders us and so many Catholics and Christians, from being faithful enough, willing enough, open enough, hungry and empty enough, to follow in the steps of our Mother, the handmaid of the Lord?
Let me just give you a short passage from a recent book about the experiences of one journeying in the Caucasus (the area of Grozny in Chechnya) where there are lots of Christian sects to be found:
Before going to church, Sergei explained how he would call on those in the community whom he thought he might have offended. He would ask their forgiveness. It took time but he didn’t mind because he loved to talk and he was able to go to church happy. “It’s difficult in those services because they’re so long. They go on and on, for hours! You stand and stand and you can hardly go on standing. But then afterwards you come home and you feel not just clean in your soul but in your body as well and you’re all dressed up and your wife looks beautiful and everything else looks beautiful too.”
In our modern, affluent, Western society many do not experience their own Church-going as did Sergei: they seem to find regular Sunday observance a burden, even when they do not find it also a bore. Perhaps this difference is because Sergei made “going to Church” something special: for him, it involved being at peace with others, and required that he take greater care with his dress for the honour of God. Many members of our Western culture, on the other hand, having their minds filled with money matters and the many varied opportunities available to them for their enjoyment of it, easily find themselves not even noticing harm done to others in the general struggle for success; and, thinking that they are doing God a favour by attending Church on Sunday, would scoff at the very idea of what they would call “dressing up” to come before His Presence.
Now, that is not something I want to enter into here, but there can be no doubt that the joy and peace Sergei experienced after Church on Sunday was, as I said, in some way related to his efforts to make that day special; and that is in perfect accord with a dictum of St. John of the Cross: ‘where there is no love put love and you will find love’.
Yes, People of God, during Advent the true disciple not only hopes for future joy, but can even aspire to experience, here and now, something of that joy which is described by the inspired words of the prophet Isaiah.
However, John the Baptist, giving clear testimony to the Lord, used words that express precisely why many contemporary Catholics find too little joy in their religious observance:
There is One among you whom you do not recognize, the One who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.
John’s words: “there is One among you Whom you do not recognize” are, sadly, still too true for many Catholics and Christians, although in a manner somewhat different from that intended by John. John was saying to the crowds on the banks of the Jordan, where he was immersing penitents in the waters flowing by, that they did not know, were not aware of, could not recognize, the Holy One standing in their midst. Most Catholics and Christians today, however, do know, are aware of, Jesus, in that sense. Where they fail in knowledge of the Lord however, is in the fact that they have no personal relationship with Him: their minds know of Him, but their hearts are not attuned to Him, nor are their lives lived with Him or for Him. Their knowledge of the Lord in their midst is objective, not personal.
Now, it is indeed necessary to know the truth of and about Jesus, because any relationship with Him has to be based upon reality open to our minds, which is why Mother Church insists that her catechetical, scriptural, and dogmatic teaching be based on accurate scholarship, backed up by philosophical and scientific truth, and exemplified by authentic Catholic and Christian spirituality. Such true teaching about the reality of faith, however, is meant to enable us to aspire and attain to personal contact and living communion with the Lord in and through the Scriptures and sacraments of Mother Church, and the intimacy of personal prayer; for only such sincerity and commitment can lead to real love for, and joyful fulfilment in, the Lord Jesus.
In our modern sophisticated social structure, money and education are readily available, and consequently we are inclined to self-satisfaction; and, having no real, basic needs of a material kind, we easily imagine that we have no spiritual needs either. Because our experience of the world seems to offer everything for relatively easy taking, many are unwilling to make efforts to satisfy spiritual needs of which they are almost unaware. Therefore they do not search for Jesus: their Bible is rarely opened let alone studied; their reception of Holy Communion is routine and perfunctory; and since the house of God is no house of prayer for them Jesus is left in splendid isolation in the tabernacle. It is because of such things that the divine truth in the Church’s teaching, and the heavenly grace available through her sacraments, bring forth but little fruit in the lives of many.
However, it is lack of personal prayer that is the most fundamental failing in most nominally Christian and Catholic lives, and St. Matthew, quoting Isaiah the prophet, gives us the reason:
Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted, and I heal them.
Gross, coarse, are the hearts of too many to hear the Lord speaking with them, guiding and encouraging, admonishing and warning them. For a society where normality it too often considered boring, and excess routinely craved, where joy is inconceivable without pleasure and peace unbearable without excitement, there is no opportunity for the voice of the Lord to be heard, no possibility that He will be appreciated or understood; too little good soil into which the divine seed can fall and take root, no humble mind or longing heart where divine love can take hold and flower.
People of God, seek Jesus more and more; Advent is a time for joy, peace, and hope. His promises are true and His coming is at hand; it is we ourselves we must indeed attend to but not despair of, because He comes with gifts to offer: not to those worthy to receive them but to those wanting and willing to accept them; to those wanting and willing to turn away from themselves and embrace Him, to those able to forget self and serve their neighbour.
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Refrain from every kind of evil.
He Who is to come shall come; he will not delay. But my just one shall live by faith, and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him. (Heb. 10:37-38)