First, awaken. Then repent. Now rejoice.
Those have been the central themes during these three Sundays of Advent. On the first Sunday, we heard Jesus exhort the disciples, “Therefore, stay awake!” Last Sunday we heard John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness, preaching “Repent!”
Today, on Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin word for “rejoice”), we hear of joy, exultation, glory and gladness. “Be strong,” declared the prophet Isaiah, “fear not!” Looking to the future, anticipating a time of peace and abundance, he gave several reasons for his call to joy. First, there is the “glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God”. Recognising God’s existence and acknowledging his overwhelming beauty and power is foundational to any real joy; without this knowledge, joy is fleeting. Then there is God’s gift of salvation: “Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.” God is not just magnificent, he is magnanimous; he is not only great, he is giving. Finally, this gift of salvation is cause for everlasting joy for it means that we are meant to enter Zion, to come into his presence with thanksgiving – for all of eternity.
But no joy can be found if we are not awake; those who slumber cannot sing. And there is no joy for the sinner, for those who refuse to repent cannot be reborn or renewed. “The power of rejoicing is always a fair test of a man’s moral condition”, observed Archbishop Fulton Sheen. “No man can be happy on the outside who is already unhappy on the inside… As sorrow is attendant on sin, so joy is the companion of holiness.”
Today’s reading from James anticipates one of the serious challenges for everyone who has awoken and repented and now waits: impatience. “Be patient, therefore, brothers,” writes James, who was addressing Christians dispersed outside of Palestine, “until the coming of the Lord” (Jm 5:7). He is emphatic on this point: “You also, be patient.” Impatience has a way of eating at our resolve, our hope, our sense of perspective. When impatience takes over, we are tempted to think we will be better off doing things our way, in our time and according to our wisdom. We begin to complain, and our resolve wilts. Impatience let loose will eventually attack our faith and destroy our peace.
St Teresa of Avila warned of this, writing:
Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end. (Cited in CCC 1821)
But what of John the Baptist? Did he give in to impatience? Today’s Gospel seems, at first blush, to suggest so. After all, the imprisoned prophet sent his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come?” But John, who never wavered in delivering his message or standing his ground, did this for the benefit of others. “John asks this not because he is ignorant,” explained St Jerome, “but to guide others who are ignorant and say to them, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!’” They were attached to John, but they needed to be transformed by Christ. In sending them to Jesus, John was shaking them awake.
John the Baptist was a prophet – “and more than a prophet” – but he was not the Saviour. He announced that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand, but he was not the King. John’s greatness came from his faithful, joyful proclamation of the greatness of the Lord. Like him, we are called to rejoice in the glory, the gift and the goodness of God.
This reflection on the Mass readings for the First Sunday of Advent (Year A) is extracted from Prepare the Way of the Lord. Prayerfully discover the meaning of Christmas with this collection of meditations on the Scripture of the Advent season and line-by-line contemplations on the Hail Mary.
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