John the Baptist Baptizes Jesus, Verrocchio & da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
“Who are you?”
[John] admitted and did not deny it,
but admitted, “I am not the Christ.” John 1:20
Today’s second reading, taken from the second letter of St. Paul to the Christians in Thessalonica, now in the northern part of Greece, begins:
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. 1 Thess 5:16-18.
In a sense, Paul is demanding that we rejoice – an imperative. The Latin for this command to rejoice is Gaudete, and today is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. The sombre purple usually designated for Advent gives way to more festive (but optional) rose colored vestments worn by the priest. Remember Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of the Lord. That means getting ourselves spiritually ready for Jesus’ birth, with the reminder that we should always be ready for Jesus’ second coming at the end of time, whenever that will be. So today we can, as it were, take a step back to survey the progress we have made towards the goal of getting ourselves ready, and rejoicing in the progress made so far.
The gospel seems to indicate that John the Baptist is also awaiting the arrival of the Savior, one even greater than he. Remember crowds of people had been coming to him for baptism and to hear him, so much so that, in today’s gospel, we hear of priests, Levites (Temple officials in Jerusalem) and even Pharisees being sent to check up on him. He coldly informs them that the Savior will not be recognized by them, yet he, John, is not worthy even to undo his sandal straps. So in a sense he could be building up the suspense by suggesting that the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah might be near. This echoes Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading, of a great person sent by God to the lowliest of society to encourage their faith, culminating is a year of favor from the Lord.
This gospel is similar to last Sunday’s in that it talks of anticipation and expectancy. But there is another element here, when John suggests that the great and powerful of Jerusalem will not recognize the Messiah when he comes. That is, of course, exactly what happened, culminating in the brutal death of that man. John himself suffered a brutal death also for telling the truth, so anticipating in a way the death of Jesus. So the message today might well be a very sobering one for us as we rush delightedly to Christmas. It is that being a worthy disciple of the Lord is not easy if we take it seriously. Jesus said, and this was in the gospel a few Sundays ago, that he is to be seen in the lowliest and weakest, thos who are left out each Christmastide. Have we all thought of them this season, or been obsessed with anything but? Have we made any sacrifice, no matter how little, to help those who cannot help themselves? Jesus was born into human society to teach us valuable, life-saving lessons, and perhaps the greatest is that life eternal is to be found when we realise we are all God’s children and that we must act accordingly.
All our Churches at this time have appeals for Christmas presents for those unable to give such to their children. Do we recognize the Savior in them or are we, like those who stood in front of John the Baptist, and heard the prediction that they would not recognize the very One who was among them offering life eternal? I think that is one of the ways – if not the way – we can put Christ back into Christmas by recognizing Jesus in the poorest and loneliest. Isn’t that a great way of rejoicing on Gaudete Sunday?