Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent

December 13, 2020
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Psalm Luke 1:46-54
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Isaiah’s beautiful prophecy of glad tidings to the poor, healing for the broken-hearted, and liberty for captives is a promise to the Israelites of freedom from exile and a return home. We hear it on this Third Sunday of Advent, a day we call Gaudete Sunday. The word gaudete means “rejoice;” it is taken from Saint Paul who advises the Thessalonians, and us, to rejoice always.

We enter ever more meaningfully into the mystery of Advent when we remember that Saint Paul wrote these words while he was suffering imprisonment in a dark jail for witnessing to the light of the Truth of Christ. Saint Paul reveals to us that the joy we experience is beyond a sense of happiness or pleasure that anyone can feel. Our joy is given to us through our Baptism as Christians; this joy is not dependent on the terms of personal success. We rejoice and give thanks because Isaiah’s prophecy has been more than fulfilled in the Incarnation of Jesus, who takes on the painful effects of our sins without the guilt of sin.

In last Sunday’s Gospel we heard Mark’s presentation of John the Baptist, who appeared suddenly in the wilderness and looked like he belonged there … camel hair shirt, leather belt, eating grasshoppers and wild honey. Today we hear how John the Evangelist presents John the Baptist. There is no mention of wilderness, but a repetition that John the Baptist has come to testify to the light. John the Baptist, a voice in the quiet of the wilderness, testifies to the light amidst the dark obscurity and shadows of a world turned away from God.

In fact, John the Baptist, when asked, says who he is not rather than who he is. I am not the Messiah … not Elijah … not the prophet. Even the positive information he gives about himself is a quote from Isaiah: I am the voice of one crying out in the desert: Make straight the way of the Lord. Where last week’s and this week’s Gospel agree is that there is One more powerful who is to come. And this week’s Gospel tells us that the more powerful One is already here. John the Baptist receives his identity from God and through Christ, whose sandals he is not worthy to unfasten. Perhaps our Advent season involves us in a project of discernment: Of what we are not and then of who we truly are as revealed in Christ — our full human nature and our status as beloved by God — present in the manger and offered on the cross.

John the Baptist would probably have preferred a life alone in the desert, but something compelled him to challenge his people to repent and seek forgiveness. There is also something compelling about John the Baptist… something that draws us to him. Perhaps his mysteriousness, or simplicity of life, or his focus on his mission, or his quiet strength and awareness of his weakness, or his willingness to be used by God. Or maybe he knew what each of us (deep in our hearts) already know: that we are nothing without God’s love and that we absolutely need God’s forgiveness and mercy. Only an authentic witness to the Eternal Light can draw us to enter the obscurity of darkness with a joyful confidence in the love of God.

Today, on Gaudete Sunday, we find ourselves again in the darkness and the Lord sends John the Baptist to draw us towards the light. We find ourselves imprisoned by fear and our powerlessness in the face of uncertainty. We think that the dark deception of sin is inevitable because God seems not to exist, let alone care for us. As Pope Benedict XVI once preached, “The Advent cry of hope then expresses from the outset and very powerfully, the full gravity of our state, of our extreme need of salvation. It is as if to say: we await the Lord not in the same way as a beautiful decoration upon a world already saved, but as the only way of liberation from a mortal danger and we know that He himself, the Liberator, had to suffer and die to bring us out of this prison.”

The joyful path into the light and out of this dark prison is our humble confession of our sins, our sincere willingness to be converted, and our reliance upon the power of God revealed in Christ. We are called to seek forgiveness from God who is the powerful one already here among us. And today, on the Sunday we are to rejoice, we realize that there is no greater joy than to receive forgiveness from Christ, who is already here to impart it to us.

Today on Gaudete Sunday when we meet John the Baptist again and when we begin to shift our focus from preparation for the second coming of Christ to grateful meditation on the first coming of Christ in Bethlehem, we make this shift in focus through the encounter of a third coming of Christ best articulated by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: “We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming He was seen on earth, dwelling among men; He Himself testifies that they saw Him and hated Him. In the final coming, all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on Him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In His first coming, our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming He comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming He will be seen in glory and majesty.”

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