Gaudete in Domino semper! Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand.
The Introit gives its name to this Third Sunday of Advent, and shapes the spirit in which we approach Sunday’s readings. In writing this reflection, I took an unusual path. I did not begin with the readings themselves, but read them through another lens. That lens is the perspective that Pope Francis proposed in the homily at the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida just before World Youth Day began, in which he proposed “three simple attitudes” for Christians. That homily spoke to my heart and captured my imagination; it has guided my meditation and lectio ever since. In tonight’s reflection, I read the Advent scriptures the lens of these three attitudes.
The first attitude is hopefulness. The Gospel today shows John the Baptist in desperate circumstances. He speaks not as a prophet and preacher, but from his prison cell. His life is in grave danger. But his words are not about his plight, rather, he speaks of God’s promise to send the Messiah. Nothing — neither his own prophecy nor Jesus’ ministry — has followed the path that he expected. He may have felt deep loneliness and discouragement in his prison cell. Nonetheless, he continued to hope, to believe, in the promise of the angel to his cousin’s mother, in the voice he had heard from the heavens when he baptized Jesus in the river Jordan. John asks only whether to continue to hope in Jesus, or to hope for another Messiah.
“Make your hearts firm,” says James in Sunday’s second reading. “See how the farmer … is patient until the land receives the early and the late rains?” Just as the farmer must trust in the rhythm of God’s handiwork when he puts seed into the ground, says James, so the Christian also must live and act in accordance with the promises of the Lord, even if in the midst of persecution and tribulation.
This attitude of hopefulness is not blind to reality; it is not denial. Isaiah, in Sunday’s first reading, speaks to “those who hearts are frightened” in their exile and oppression. Hopefulness is a choice, an act of the will, for all who are anxious or suffering. It acknowledges loss and pain, injustice and bleak horizons. Hopefulness refuses to believe that the visible world is all that there is. The present troubled circumstances are not the ultimate reality.
Isaiah tells the Hebrew exiles: “Be strong! Here is your God, he comes with vindication… he comes to save you.” In the psalm response, we place ourselves among the blind and the lame, the widow and orphan, the poor and the oppressed. With them, we cry out in hopefulness: “Lord, come and save us.”
When we are firm in our hope, we are ready to practice the second attitude named by Pope Francis: Openness to being surprised by God.
Openness to being surprised by God
At Aparecida, Pope Francis said, “Anyone who is a man or a woman of hope — the great hope which faith gives us — knows that even in the midst of difficulties God acts and he surprises us.…But he asks us to let ourselves be surprised by his love, to accept his surprises.”
This is the crux of the question for John the Baptist. His life and his ministry of prophecy were filled with hopefulness. In his searing condemnation of the complacent affluence of his day, his challenging preaching of repentance, his urgent cry that the axe is at the root of the tree: in all of these, he gave evidence of the strength of his hope in the coming Messiah.
But his Messiah came to the river and asked John to baptize him. Jesus did not topple rulers from their thrones; he did not toss out the unjust landlords nor distribute their land to the poor. He did not even concentrate his ministry in Jerusalem, with the wealthy and powerful. No: he went from town to town, preaching a change of heart, living among those who were least religious and most sinful, healing and preaching to the outcasts.
John’s hopefulness never foundered. But the disparity between what John saw in Jesus’ ministry and the Messiah he expected prompted him to question his call. What were John’s emotions? Did he secretly hope that Jesus would tell him that he should continue to wait for the powerful Messiah he expected? Or did John remember how his heart was burning within him when he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove, when he proclaimed Jesus as the Lamb of God?
Jesus does not give a “yes” or “no” answer to John’s question. He sees the struggle in John’s heart to be open to God’s surprises. Jesus describes his ministry to John in the familiar phrases of the prophets and the psalms, a reminder that God has always promised to come in surprising ways:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised.
To these well-known words, Jesus adds one more unlikely, unheard of hallmark of the Messiah: “…and the poor have the good news preached to them.” Jesus reaches out to John in his doubts; his closing words are at once promise, challenge, and encouragement: “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”
When Jesus addresses the crowd, he calls them to also be prepared for God to act in their lives in surprising ways. “What did you go out to the desert to see?” he asks them — “was it a spectacle — someone swaying with the wind of the spirit? Someone in fine robes?” No! He confronts them with the reality of their experience: they were drawn to John because, in John’s zeal, they could discern the action of the divine. “Wake up!” says Jesus, “Acknowledge that the Lord is acting in your time, in your lives.”
This openness is simple, but it is not easy. We can close it off in a moment with anxiety, with trying to bring about the good through our own efforts, with entrancement to the world’s allures.
When we are open to the surprises God sends into our lives, we travel by a route we do not know. Yet this is the only route on which God has promised to be near to us. This is why, as Pope Francis said, “Cut off from Jesus, the wine of joy, the wine of hope, runs out. If we draw near to him, if we stay with him, what seems to be cold water, difficulty, sin, is changed into the new wine of friendship with him.”
This openness, this readiness to welcome the surprises that God sends to us each day leads us into the third attitude. It is the attitude which is evident in many of the images and stories we have seen of Pope Francis: the attitude of living in joy.
Living in Joy
Like hopefulness, Christian joy does not deny the painful realities of our world. It is not the joy that John the Baptist initially expected, joy in an end to oppressive circumstances. That joy would be fleeting and transient, like everything in our fallen world. The injustice of one empire gives way to the dominance of other interests; all our efforts to resolve troubles in community, workplace or family cannot prevent new conflicts from arising. If we let our joy depend on circumstances, it is a small and fragile joy, hostage to all our weaknesses of mind and body. Christians are called to live in a robust and unshakeable joy.
This joy is grounded in the deep message of these Advent readings: the deepest desire of our hearts has already been fulfilled. God is with us, moment by moment. At Aparecida, Pope Francis said, “If we are truly in love with Christ and if we sense how much he loves us, our heart will ‘light up’ with a joy that spreads to everyone around us.”
This is the joy which Jesus offers to John the Baptist. Jesus reveals the breadth and depth and height and width of this joy when he says that no prophet was greater than John – yet the least who enter into the joy of his kingdom will be greater still. It is this joy that he offers to us on this Gaudete Sunday.
In this spirit, I will close with a short prayer by the always-surprising Michael Leunig:
God give us rain when we expect sun.
Give us music when we expect trouble.
Give us tears when we expect breakfast.
Give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
God play with us,
Turn us sideways