St. John the Baptist, El Greco, Fine Arts Museums: Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, USA.
“I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Luke 3:16.
The overriding theme of today’s celebration is joy. Look at the first reading: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness…” Then there’s the second reading: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” That is the reason for the old-fashioned name for this Sunday, “Gaudete”, or “Rejoice” in Latin. It signifies that our pilgrimage to Christmas is almost complete, and that we should be encouraged and joyful; that is why you might see the purple vestment of Advent changed to rose today, a somewhat brighter color for the season. The figure of John the Baptist, however, can hardly be considered joyful, and his message keeps us grounded in reality. He prophesied that the One to come “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” He also taught what we might think was the un-Christmas, not getting more than we really need, to share our food and goods with those who have nothing. The image of children surrounded with mountains of presents, ripping through them in minutes, and a Christmas table heavy with everything is a little jarring, compared to his words. In other words, I think, rejoice, yes, but remember what the Christian message is at its heart, to love God and neighbor as well as yourself. God and neighbor should not be forgotten at this time; indeed, John is insistent that we do something for them. For those who have resources and family and friends, Christmas is a very joyful time; for those who have nothing or no-one, it is a time of greatest pain. We have to make sure we have done all we can to spread the joy. I suspect that is what is today’s message.
So spreading Christmas joy is the idea, and it comes at a time when we still have the time to do it. So thinking hats have to go on, bank balances examined, time allocated and decisions made to include as best we can those who have nothing. The babe in Bethlehem had essentially nothing; we should remember that. Those of us who are in better shape do have an obligation to lessen such suffering. In doing so, God who sees all with indeed rejoice over us with gladness, and the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds. So, in that way, all three readings today come together to create a model of the perfect Christmas.
Christmas dinner for the homeless in Dublin, Ireland, 2015, The Irish Times.