Our Gospel reading today is almost the same one as last Sunday’s, except last week it was from Mark’s Gospel and this week it is from John’s. Both of them have to do with John the Baptist. Many people regarded John with his very ascetic lifestyle, his preaching, and his baptizing in the Jordan River as a great man, so great that they wondered if perhaps he were the Messiah. But John sets the record straight for them. In both of them John states that he himself is not the Messiah, but that the Messiah would come after him, and that he is not worthy to so much as loosen the strap of his sandal, a phrase which appears in our Gospel reading both this Sunday and last.
John the Baptist has a very prominent role in Advent, precisely because he was the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant, all of whom had foretold the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one whom the Lord would send to redeem Israel, who would be at one and the same time priest, prophet, and king. So John wanted to make sure that no one would be confused and mistake him for this Messiah; that he was rather the servant of the Messiah, one who was not even worthy to do the lowliest of tasks: untie the straps of his sandals.
And so during this season of Advent the Church turns her attention to John, who heralded Christ’s coming, because the celebration of the birth of Jesus is itself imminent. And this third Sunday of Advent is referred to as Gaudate Sunday, which if you recall means “rejoice”. It is a reminder to us to rejoice, even as we await the coming of the Lord, both the celebration of his birth and his second coming at the end of time. Of course, many people don’t really feel like rejoicing. Someone said to me the other day that it feels like we’re still stuck in Lent. But nevertheless, as both our first and second readings today say, we have reason to rejoice.
Our first reading from Isaiah is spoken in the voice of God’s anointed one. The book of Isaiah includes what are known as “Servant Songs”, which speak of a mysterious servant of the Lord. In the song included in our first reading, it is the Servant himself who is speaking. He refers to himself as the Lord’s anointed one, whom the Lord has sent to, among other things: announce good news “to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners….”
Likewise, in our second reading, St. Paul urges the Thessalonians to “rejoice always.” And what is the reason for this rejoicing? Why should we rejoice? The Jews throughout the Old Testament were no strangers to suffering. The same for the small Christian communities of the early Church, who lived at a time when hardly anyone was Christian, and Christians were regarded with suspicion by both Jews and pagans alike. But both Isaiah the prophet and St. Paul do not hesitate to speak of rejoicing.
The reason why we should rejoice can be heard in the words of the Servant in our reading from Isaiah: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord; in my God is the joy of my soul.” God is the reason for our rejoicing. God has sent his Son Our Lord Jesus Christ into this world. The Messiah that the Jews waited centuries for has now come, and He has already begun to fulfill his promise to save the world from itself. Even in challenging, difficult, and sorrowful times, we have reason to rejoice.
We rejoice because Jesus has already come to heal those who are broken-hearted and to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners. So if you feel somewhat broken-hearted this year, or if you feel like you’re trapped in a dystopia, take courage and rejoice, because the Lord has already come to save you.
Perhaps this means we have to ask the Lord to give us the eyes to see what he has already begun. It can be very difficult to do that, because we are very conditioned, whether we realize it or not, to see things through the lens of our news media, what we see on TV, in movies, on social media, our society, and even our family and friends. We also have the tendency to filter things through our own individual experiences and worldview. Which is what leads people to draw very different conclusions from the exact same information. This is completely normal and everyone does this to one degree or another. But we must recognize that it doesn’t always give us an accurate picture of reality and of truth. And the reality is found in our Scriptures: God created us; He loves us; He has come to save us, and He will triumph. As bleak or as dark as things look, that truth remains unchangeable. We have to remind ourselves of it, as often as necessary, and take courage in it.
During the harsh decades of Communism in Russia, there was a Russian political prisoner named Alexander Solzhenitsyn who spent years in one of their concentration camps in Siberia, undernourished, forced to do hard manual labor everyday, living in miserable conditions. He wrote of a fellow prisoner, who would mutter every night while lying in his bunk, “Life is _______.” Solzhenitsyn also wrote of another fellow prisoner, a Christian, who was always at peace in spite of the miserable circumstances. These prisoners experienced the same miserable conditions but responded to them in completely different ways. The man who was always at peace was able to rejoice in spite of the hardship because he knew he had a Savior.
We too have a Savior. He has already come; He is always with us, most especially in the Eucharist. And for that, we have every reason to rejoice.