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Gaudete Sunday

December 12, 2004

Blessed Gaudete Sunday!

Isaiah 35: 1-6, 10
Psalm 146: 6-10 “Lord, come and save us”
James 5:7-10
+ Matthew 11:2-11

Gaudete means “Rejoice!”, and when the Mass was still done in Latin, it was the first word, the word that set the theme, of the entire celebration for this Sunday of Advent. Rejoice! Advent is more than half-over! Rejoice! The Lord is near! That’s why the candle for this week is rose, a color of joy.

The readings carry through with this theme. Heaven will be full of rejoicing, flowers, song, glory and healing. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing…Sorrow and mourning will flee away” (Isaiah 35:1-6, 10). James urges us to be patient, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (James 5:8). And John the Baptist sends us to Jesus, that we may see for ourselves that Isaiah’s prophesy is being fulfilled in our midst.

I didn’t see that at first. On the surface of the story, it looks as if John the Baptist was having second thoughts. He sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you he who is to come?”, almost as if his time in Herod’s prison had made him unsure of the answer. Then I had a look at St. Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea, which is a collection of commentary on the Gospels compiled from the Fathers of the early Church (St. Jerome, St. Chrysostom, St. Hilary, St. Gregory, St. Augustine & others). They didn’t see it that way at all.

No, the whole mission of John the Baptist was to prepare the way for the Messiah and then to point people to Jesus when He came. The Baptist wasn’t looking for anything for himself. He himself had said, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). He had spent his entire life sending people to Jesus, and some of his disciples, Andrew included (John 1:35-37) had already left him to become Jesus’ disciples. Others, however, hadn’t. Some had even challenged Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees often fast, whereas thy disciples do not fast?” (Matthew 9:14). Jesus’ response, that wedding guests don’t mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them (Matthew 9:15), pointed to His identity as Messiah, but still disciples remained with the Baptist.

Time was running out. The Baptist knew that it would be only a matter of time before his head rolled, and any disciple who haven’t gotten the message by then would be vulnerable to disillusionment, to losing faith altogether instead of putting their faith in Jesus where it belonged. He’d already pointed to Jesus, saying “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29), “this is the Son of God” (John 1:34) and again, “Behold the Lamb of God!’ (John 1:36). That method had worked for some of his disciples, but others still didn’t get it. So he tried something different. He’d heard about the wonders Jesus was performing. He knew they fulfilled Messianic prophesy, known to every pious Jew of the time. So he sent a couple of his disciples to Jesus, putting their own question on their lips, “Are you the one?”, and asking them to bring back a full report. I know I tend to pay closer attention when I know I need to describe something to someone else. The Baptist put these disciples in that position. Jesus, knowing the Baptist’s intent, let His works speak for themselves. He healed the blind, the deaf and the lame in fulfillment of Isaiah 35:5-6, and threw in the healing of lepers, the raising of the dead and the preaching of the Gospel to the poor, just for good measure. Then He sent them back to the Baptist, urging them to give a full report and adding, “Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me” (Matthew 11:5-6). They had a lot to think about as they retraced their steps to the hopeful prophet who was most likely praying for their conversion.

As the Baptist’s disciples left, Jesus turned to the crowd, lest they misunderstand what had just happened, lest they think that the Baptist’s faith had wavered. “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind?…A man clothed in soft garments? Behold, those who wear soft garments are in the houses of kings.” (Matthew 11:7-8) This is said ironically–of course they hadn’t gone out to see a reed shaken by the wind. The Baptist was no reed and no wind of royal displeasure had shaken him. He was a desert man, a rugged man, clothed in camel skin, not velvets. He was the sort of man who could say with St. Paul, “I have learned to be self-sacrificing in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to live humbly and I know how to live in abundance (I have been schooled to every place and every condition), to be filled and to be hungry, to have abundance and to suffer want” (Philippians 4:11-12). Why would imprisonment cause the Baptist to falter? Was his cell really that much different from the desert caves from which he’d just come? Could prison food be much more coarse than locusts and wild honey? He had disciplined himself to a difficult life and he knew that when you scold a king you put your life on the line.

No, what the crowd had gone out to see was a prophet. Jesus confirms that and adds that the Baptist was more than a prophet. He was the forerunner of the Messiah, who was making one last attempt to point people to Jesus, the Messiah. Yet as wonderful a mission as that was, greater still was the least in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 11:9-11). That wasn’t a put-down of the Baptist (who would very soon enter Heaven itself), but was rather an invitation to His listeners to accept the grandeur of the mission to which He was calling them. It was as if He said, “You’re impressed by the prophets, and so you should be. You’ve been eager for the coming of the forerunner of the Messiah, and indeed there’s never been a greater man than he. But there’s something even more glorious, and I want you to be a part of it!”

Jesus wants us to be a part of His Kingdom too. He wants to heal the blindness that keeps us from seeing as He sees (John 9:39-41), to give us ears open to hear His good news (Mark 8:18), to give our lame legs new strength for running the race He has set before us (I Corinthians 9:24). If we are dead in mortal sin, He wants to raise us to new life (I John 5:16, Ephesians 2:4-6). Ultimately, He will return to take us to Himself, to His Father’s house where there are many mansions, where He has prepared a place for us (John 14:2-3).

Let’s prepare ourselves for the place He has prepared for us. Let’s submit ourselves to the One who died for us, submit as a bride to her devoted bridegroom, so that He may sanctify us, cleansing us in the bath of water by means of the word, that He might present us to Himself in bridal splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish (see Ephesians 5:25-27). Then we will be ready for the beauty, the rejoicing, the song, the flowers and the glory of the wedding of the Lamb, in which we as the Bride of Christ will be united to the intimacy of the Holy Trinity for all eternity.


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