In earlier times the third Sunday in Advent was known as "Gaudete Sunday" because the entrance prayer or "Introit" began with the Latin words, "gaudete in domino semper." Translated the phrase means "rejoice in the Lord always." Today, as it has always done, the Church injects an element of joy into the penitential season of Advent. In many churches the priest will put aside the purple vestments which signify sorrow and penance, and put on rose colored vestments, a symbol of joy. The Church is asking us to look ahead to the glory of the coming of the Savior on Christmas.
Certainly, the reading from the prophet Isaiah strikes an upbeat and exultant note. He sees the dry parched earth blooming with new life. He uses words like glory and splendor to describe the once barren land. Men will also be transformed by the Lord. Hands will be strengthened; and weak knees will become firm. To the fainthearted, he says, "Be strong, fear not! Then Isaiah proclaims the famous words which are echoed in today's gospel.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Isaiah and John the Baptist are the two great prophets associated with Advent. Last week we saw John in the midst of his mission to prepare the way of the Lord. John had said that, "the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals." These words were from chapter 3 of Matthew's gospel and were spoken at the beginning of our Lord's public life.
Since that time a lot has happened. By the time we get to today's reading from chapter 11 of Matthew's gospel, Jesus has himself been baptized by John, given the Sermon on the Mount, worked many miracles, and called His own disciples to His side. This is why Jesus, in answer to John's question, "are you the one who is to come?" repeats the words of Isaiah about the blind, the lame, the deaf and the poor. By this time John is in prison, his mission over, and he is soon to be executed.
John had said that he wasn't worthy to carry our Lord's sandals, but Jesus claims that John is the greatest of all the prophets. In fact, our Lord says that "among those born of woman there has been none greater than John the Baptist."
It's common for religious artists to portray John as kind of a strangely dressed wild man shouting at people in the desert. Yet a little later in this chapter of Matthew's our Lord makes the startling claim that " it was toward John that all the prophecies of the prophets and the Law were leading, and he, if you will believe Me, is the Elijah who was to return." The Jews believed that the coming of the Messiah would be preceded by the return of the great prophet, Elijah, who had been taken up into Heaven in a chariot of fire.
Perhaps this is the reason why Jesus takes time to reflect on John and his prophetic mission. After John's disciples had left to bring the good news back to him, Jesus "began to speak to the crowds about John." He asks them why they went out into the desert to see John. What did they expect to see. "A reed swayed by the wind?" "Someone dressed in fine clothing?" He asks them the same question that He asks all of us this Advent. "Then why did you go out." What are we looking for?
Here we are only two weeks before Christmas. What are we looking for this season? What do we want for ourselves and our loved ones this Christmas? Why are we going out to the malls and the shopping centers? Aren't we all trying to find happiness? Aren't we all trying to cast away fear and darkness and bring some joy and light into our lives? Look at the way we light up our houses, look at the music we hear coming over the radio.
I recall an article by a man who is a well known lecturer, TV personality, and author. He has a beautiful wife and son and is extremely successful. Yet he wrote, "I am almost 60. Time flies and it scares me. I don't want to die. I like being in good health. I don't want to be sick and have wires and tubes and scalpels in me. I like having enough money. I don't want to be old and poor. I sat in my car...shivering in fear. And then it struck me. I spend too darned much of my life in fear. I always have. You can't imagine how much of my life I have thrown away by being a slave to fear."
Today's second reading is an excerpt from the Letter of St. James. We rarely encounter the letter of St. James in our Sunday readings but this short epistle should be required reading for all of us this season. James calls upon us to put away fear. He echoes the words of Isaiah.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
He tells us to be patient, and not to complain. This is good advice in any season. We live in the richest society on the face of the earth; even our poor are better off than billions of people on the rest of the earth. Yet our newspapers and television tell us that there is so much unhappiness and complaining in our society. Today, however, let us look forward to the coming of our Lord on Christmas and put away our fears.
Gaudete! Rejoice in the Lord always.
Reading 1. Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10
Reading II. James 5: 7-10
Gospel. Matthew 11: 2-11 (none greater than John the Baptist).