Dec 17, 2017: 3rd Sunday of Advent (B)

Introduction

Traditionally, the third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday,” the Sunday of Joy.  The name originates from the Latin word gaudete (“rejoice”), the first word of the introit of this day’s Mass:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.

which translates as:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.  (Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1)

Gaudete Sunday is a counterpart to Laetare Sunday during Lent, both of which provide a similar pause about midway through a season which is otherwise of a penitential character, and signifies the nearness of the Lord’s coming.  The message of the readings and the anticipation that Christmas is nearing inspire in us great joy.  The rose-colored vestments worn by the celebrants of the Mass and the rose colored candle of the Advent wreath serve as visual reminders of our rejoicing in the midst of our spiritual preparations for the coming of Christ.

This Week

When placed side by side, the readings interpret each other, demonstrating our gaudete theme within this Advent season.  Each of these statements gives us reason to rejoice!

Isaiah:  I rejoice heartily in the Lord.
Paul:  Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks…
John the Baptist:  There is one among you whom you do not recognize.

1st Reading – Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11

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 poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

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.

Today’s first reading begins with a promise of salvation and ends with a prayer of thanksgiving for the salvation granted.  It includes several prophetic themes:

  • God cares for the afflicted;
  • God saves through the agency of human beings;
  • God fulfills promises;
  • All things are accomplished through God’s grace.

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me;

Normally kings and priests are anointed, but anointing mentioned here does not appear to have been an actual event.  The mission assigned to the prophet does not include royal (kingly) or cultic (priestly) responsibilities.

he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, 

While the image of anointing may be a figure of speech, the duties that accompany it are very real and explicitly social.  There is mention of healing and comforting, but the principal function of the prophet is proclamation.  He is called to announce liberty, release, and the year of the Lord.

It is clear that the victims referred to here are the victims of a system.  The good news to be proclaimed to them promises that they will be the beneficiaries of the year of release, while the oppressive system will have to contend with the vengeance of God.

to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.

Mention of the year of the Lord calls to mind the jubilee year in Leviticus 25 (vv. 10-13), the time when debts are forgiven (see Deuteronomy 15), when land that had been forfeited was returned to its original owners, and when those imprisoned because of financial adversity were set free.  This was a time of great anticipation for the dispossessed and the impoverished.  Conversely, it was a time of regret for those who would lose some of their wealth in the forthcoming economic redistribution.

Whether or not such a year of release was ever observed, the idea did become a powerful metaphor for general emancipation and economic restructuring.  It symbolized the advent of a new era, a time of deliverance for the disadvantaged.  It was considered a year that was instituted through the favor of the Lord, not the goodwill of other people.

It was intended to remind the people that they had once been slaves and God delivered them; they had been without land and God allotted them a share in God’s own domain; they had been subjugated by stronger nations and God rescued them.

Note that this is the passage Jesus reads in the synagogue in Luke 4:18.  He makes it clear that this excerpt from Isaiah is a reference to his own mission.

I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; 

The response to this announcement of good news is an exclamation of praise and thanksgiving.  The delight of the prophet is seen in the repetition of sentiments, which the parallel construction of the passage provides.

for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, 

God’s kindness has transformed him; it has altered his appearance.  He wears salvation and justice as garments that cover and protect him.

like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels.

A second poetic parallelism offers another description of his altered appearance.  He is adorned like a bridegroom, bedecked like a bride.  The wedding couple represents the promise of new life that deliverance brings.  The extravagance with which they are attired denotes the good fortune that new life always suggests.

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.

A final image of burgeoning springtime represents the new life of righteousness that God will cause to spring up.  Note that it will be a display that all the nations will witness.

2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good.
Refrain from every kind of evil.

May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.

Today’s second reading is the conclusion of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which includes exhortation, encouragement, and blessing.

As we look forward to Christ’s arrival, both at Christmas and at the parousia, Saint Paul’s admonitions provide clear direction for how to conduct ourselves as we wait.

Brothers and sisters: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.

Paul’s directions are crisp and concrete, urging the members of this community to be unceasing in their spiritual practices.

In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s admonishment to be thankful in all circumstances suggests that there are some situations that do not normally engender gratitude.

In other words, Paul does not overlook the realities of suffering in life, nor does he advocate a false sense of happiness that simply refuses to let in anything painful.  The joy he urges is the joy that comes from knowing that in Christ’s resurrection even death itself has been overcome.  This joy can be manifested in the Christian even in the midst of affliction.

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good.

This suggests the presence of charismatic or spirit-filled activity.  Paul encourages the Thessalonians to give full rein to the gifts of the spirit while discerning what is genuinely of God and what is not.

“We can thus see why Paul, not wanting the grace of the Spirit given to us to grow cold, exhorts us, ‘Do not quench the Spirit.’ The only way we can continue to be partakers of Christ is to cling until the end to the Holy Spirit, who was given to us at the beginning (see Matthew 10:22; Hebrews 3:5). Paul said ‘Do not quench’ not because the Spirit is under the power of men but because evil and unthankful men certainly do wish to quench the Spirit. Demonstrating their impurity, they drive the Spirit away by their unholy deeds.” [Saint Athanasius (ca. A.D. 367), Festial Letters 4,4]

Refrain from every kind of evil. 

Prophecy is the gift of speaking forth God’s word.  Tied to covenant responsibilities, it is often a difficult message that calls for conversion.  A genuine prophet is usually reluctant to have to speak in this way; likewise a community of believers does not always welcome the challenge that a prophet might pose.

Paul is warning of a too-hasty dismissal of the demands that might be uttered by those who prophesy; at the same time, they must be careful not to be swept away by a false utterance.

May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,

Finally, Paul prays that God will bring to completion the holiness of the Thessalonian community in every aspect: spirit, soul, and body.  In praying this, he is speaking not from a Greek perspective with its dichotomy of soul and body but from a Jewish perspective in which the whole person is regarded in its various aspects.

be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul prays for their holiness because he wants them to be found blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If they are, then the Day of the Lord will be for them a day of rejoicing rather than a day of judgment.

“In the wicked, sin reigns over the soul, being settled as on its own throne in the mortal body, so that the soul obeys its lusts… but in the case of those who have become perfected, the spirit has gained the mastery and put to death the deeds of the body. It imparts to the body of its own life and there arises a concord of the two, body and spirit, on the earth. … But still more blessed is it if the three [i.e., spirit, soul and body] be gathered together in the name of Jesus, that this may be fulfilled, ‘May God sanctify you wholly, and may your spirit and the soul and body be preserved entire without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’” [Origen (after A.D. 244), Commentaries on Matthew 14,3]

The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.

Paul ends on a note of confidence.  He assures the Thessalonians of God’s faithfulness to the promises of salvation made to them.  If they are true to the religious promises they made, God will bring to fulfillment all of the good begun in them.

Gospel – John 1:6-8, 19-28

A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.

And this is the testimony of John.
When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests
and Levites to him
to ask him, “Who are you?”
He admitted and did not deny it,
but admitted, “I am not the Christ.”
So they asked him,
“What are you then? Are you Elijah?”
And he said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
So they said to him,
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?
What do you have to say for yourself?”
He said:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘make straight the way of the Lord,’

as Isaiah the prophet said.”
Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,
“Why then do you baptize
if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”
John answered them,
“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.”
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan,
where John was baptizing.

“Who are you?” is the hinge question in this reading from the Gospel of John.

A man named John was sent from God.

The name John means “Yahweh is great.”

He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.

John is described in terms of his relationship with the light that is to come into the world: he is not the light itself, but the divinely chosen witness to this light.

Some have said that because he was not the light and because the light had not yet entered the world, John himself was in darkness.  Thus, he was the voice that cried out from the darkness, the voice that proclaimed that the light was soon to come.

And this is the testimony of John.

Witness is one of the sacred writer’s (Saint John’s) fundamental ideas. Faith, and its converse, disbelief, are the theme of the first half of this gospel.

When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites

“Jews” is a term which John later applies to the leaders of the community who persecute Jesus.

Priests and Levites were empowered under the Law to make religious decisions. The combined reference to “priests and Levites” occurs only here in the New Testament.

to him to ask him, “Who are you?”

The witness is being cross-examined by Jewish religious leaders.  This question is also asked of Jesus in John 8:25 and 21:12.

he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Messiah.”

Jesus answers “I am” while John answers twice, “I am not.”

So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” 

Elijah, the prophet who had been taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11), was expected by some to return at the end of time.  He would purify the priesthood (Malachi 3:2-4), restore the tribes of Israel, and mitigate the wrath of God (Sirach 48:10).

“Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 

Some people were looking for a prophet sent by God who, in the manner of Moses, would solve the people’s legal squabbles (Deuteronomy 18:15-18).

His responses to all of their questions are negative.  He is not the Messiah; he is not Elijah; he is not the prophet promised long ago.  All of these were messianic figures, and John refuses to be identified with any one of them.

So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?”

Having exhausted their best attempts at what John’s claims might be, the Jews now demand that John identify himself — and by doing so, his mission.

He said: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”

In reply to the demand, John refuses to identify himself with any person at all; he is merely the “voice” of Isaiah 40:3.

Taking a familiar text from Isaiah that recounts the leveling out of the wilderness so that the exiles might return home from Babylon, the author transforms it into a description of the Baptist’s own ministry.  The original clearing in order to make a way for God’s people to return to their land now becomes an opening of the way for God to come to the people.

Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet?”

This is a different group than that in verse 19; the priests and Levites would have been Sadducees, not Pharisees.  As watchmen over traditional Jewish law and practice, they would have been particularly interested in and concerned with John’s practice of baptizing.

Their question is: if John the Baptist is not claiming any eschatological role, why is he performing an eschatological action like baptizing?

John answered them, “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.”

John explains that his role is preparatory, and further states that the one for whom he prepares is already in the midst of the people but they do not recognize him. This individual will far exceed anything the Baptist might do, because he far exceeds anything the Baptist might be.

Unfastening a sandal strap was the job of a slave – the one to come is so great that John is not worthy even to perform this task for him.

John is content to be first the witness and then the herald, and nothing more.

This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

The gospel writer closes this passage with this geographic reference of the name of the site.  Closing a section of narrative with a geographic reference is common in John’s Gospel.

“The far side” indicates the eastern shore of the river.  This is not the same Bethany as the town of Lazarus and his sisters on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem.  Bethany means “place [or house] of grace.” Some ancient texts list the name as Bethabara, “place of the crossing.”  Since no town of this name has ever been discovered in any text or any archaeological site most scholars believe this name indicates that this was the site that the children of Israel used to cross the Jordan River when they first entered the Promised Land.  The exact place is unknown today.

In the 3rd century the early Church Father, Origen, who lived in Palestine, agreed with this interpretation.  He testified that he had not been able to find any ancient town called Bethabara or Bethany across the Jordan. In his opinion the site of Jesus’ baptism was the “place of the crossing” that had become a “place of grace” [Bethany] and that John 1:28 should really read “Bethabara.”

Connections and Themes

The readings address the question: Who will bring us the good news of God?  Three themes address this question: the Messiah is the good news; the Messiah brings the promised gifts; everything must be tested.

The Messiah is the Good News. The Messiah, as described in the Isaian passage, is the one imbued with the spirit and with the power of the prophet.  The Messiah realizes the promises of God’s jubilee time, that is, the new era of hope and emancipation.  The work of the Messiah will be the work of God, the extraordinary reversal of the ways of power and domination so that justice and praise may spring up among the nations.  It becomes obvious in the Gospel that the Messiah is the one proclaimed by the Baptist.  John cleared a path for the coming of the anointed one, and from that time on the lives of believers have been the pathway through which the Messiah has entered the world.

The Messiah Brings the Promised Gifts.  The Messiah brings justice, glad tidings, healing, liberty, vindication, and the beginning of a new era of God’s peace.  In this, the Messiah radically alters the expectations of those who define reality apart from God’s promise.  The turnabout happens when the messianic gifts that are offered offend the rich, the proud, and the mighty.

According to Paul, the response of believers should be one of constant rejoicing, praying, and thanks.  In other words, the gifts can be received only by hearts open to the promise.  The dispositions of joy, prayer, and gratitude create such openness.  Insofar as we have received the gifts, we are changed.  No more evil ways, no more despising prophecy, no more false identities.  Now everything is made new.

Test Everything.  There is a warning, however.  Paul admonishes us: Test everything!  How do we know that we have received the messianic gifts and are not simply laboring under self or communal deception?  Test the spirits!

It is to the victims of the system that the Messiah comes with the gifts of God.  The poor, the prisoners, the disenfranchised, the underprivileged, and the lowly are the ones to whom the messianic gifts are offered.  These gifts are given to all those who yearn for liberation.  Therefore, to the degree that the poor are fed, the naked clothed, and the abused cared for, we know that the messianic age has dawned.

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