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December 15, 2019 Third Sunday of Advent

All three readings today are about the coming of the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah announces that he will come; the evangelist Matthew tells us he has come; the apostle James tells us that he will come again.

John the Baptist still occupies centre stage in the gospel today but now, instead of a striking figure calling to repentance in the wilderness he sits in a dark, stone prison. We are, of course, not surprised. We knew it would happen. No one can speak unpleasant truths to the power brokers of the land without penalty. John is suffering the fate of the true prophet.

Our reflection on this lonely figure, silenced for his obedience to God’s word, directs our conscience to the question of our own relationship to those who tell us truths we don’t want to hear, as well as our readiness to speak unpopular truths to the world around us. It is a complex question of discernment, which can only bear fruit in the light of grace-filled prayer. Our relationship to truth is the very same reality as our relationship to God because – God is truth.

Advent is a time for precisely such reflection. Do I think truthfully? Do I speak truthfully? Do I judge truthfully? Do I live truthfully? For most of us, over these simple yet profound questions there lies the thick blanket of our self-deception. Do not the guilty always proclaim their innocence? Do not the liars always profess honesty? Do not the thieves always assert their integrity?

Only God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, can disperse the dark clouds surrounding our corrupted hearts; only the double-edged sword of his Word can cut through our stubborn determination to see things as we are rather than as things are.

We now turn to the Gospel, to John the Baptist in prison. John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the prophets to announce the coming of the Christ. He had leapt for joy in his mother’s womb at the approach of the yet unborn Messiah. By the river Jordan he had pointed out the Messiah with great confidence: Look, there is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. But now in the darkness of his prison cell John began to question. Perhaps he found it difficult to reconcile the line of Ps 145: the Lord, who sets prisoners free, with his present condition.

Imprisoned in his cell John the Baptist is, nevertheless, truly free – liberated by truth – but he is still human and, it seems, in need of some reassurance. In the darkness of his cell, cut off from the outside world, from Jesus and from his ministry, John needs. The sharp memory of events by the river Jordan, which had allowed him so confidently to point him out as ‘the One’. ‘The Lamb of God’, that sharp memory began to fade.

Perhaps it was the darkness and coldness of his prison, which began to seep into him so that he began to wonder. Perhaps he heard false rumors, or maybe he just grew confused and less confident in his solitude. We could say that Jesus’ face and his identity became blurred in the mind of John.

John the Baptist was reaching out for the real Jesus – the truth. So he sent his disciples to ask the Lord if he was the One, the One promised by the Scriptures. And Jesus told those disciples to tell John what they saw Jesus doing. Jesus knew that John had an intimate knowledge of the Sacred Scripture and so he described himself in scriptural terms:

Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.

In the solitude of his prison John the Baptist would have deeply pondered the Lord’s response. We can confidently hope that it would not have taken him long to realize that every word of the prophets and psalmist was applicable to the Savior. The violence he had come to execute was against sin and death while the power he had come to exercise was in gentleness, healing, mercy and forgiveness. Definitive judgment would come but that would be reserved to the Day of the Lord, which would come soon enough.

John would have rejoiced to hear those words for now he knew that Jesus and the One promised in the Scriptures were the same person. Jesus made himself known to John in the Scriptures, just as he had revealed himself to the Emmaus disciples in the breaking of the bread.

This is truly a matter for rejoicing. What a lesson for us! With utmost confidence we, too, can now turn to the sacred, inspired texts of the Bible and discover there the face of the Master.

If you want to contemplate the coming of the promised One, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, and his inner truth – just contemplate the First Reading, what happens around him as he approaches:

Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees and say to all faint hearts, `Courage! Do not be afraid. Look your God is coming.’

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy for those the Lord has ransomed shall return. They will come to Zion shouting for joy, everlasting joy on their faces; joy and gladness will go with them and sorrow and lament be ended.

No wonder this is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Advent marked with the joy of expectation. Our God is coming. Soon we will be set free.

Let the wilderness and the dry-lands exult, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom, let it bring forth flowers, let it rejoice and sing for joy … they shall see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.

 

We here in this church are a people waiting for the return of the Messiah. St James says he ‘is already to be seen waiting at the gates.’ Instead of empty musings let us turn our minds often to consideration of the joys of heaven. In faith we can already begin enjoying them as one begins enjoying the pleasures of home after a long trip abroad.

 

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