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Gaudete Sunday

December 16, 2007

Blessed Gaudete Sunday!

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.

Readings:
Isaiah 35:1-6, 10 (we will rejoice in God’s salvation)
Psalm 146:6-10 “Lord, come and save us”
James 5:7-10 (be as patient as a farmer
awaiting the precious yield of the soil)
+ Matthew 11:2-11 (John the Baptist asks “Are You He who is to come?”)

The readings carry through with the theme of joy. 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 which had been his home all
his life? 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.

Amen!

For today’s treasure hunt, let’s turn to the angels. Angels are
considered relatively “safe” nowadays. Even non-religious people like
them. They think of angels as kind beings who only want to make us
happy–who have little or nothing to do with God or His commands.
Angels, however, are a lot more like St. John the Baptist than like
fairy godmothers. The very word “angel” means “messenger”. Like Jesus,
angels speak only what God commands them to speak. Yes, they protect
and guide us–as God’s representatives. And because God and the angels
know that our souls are the most valuable part if us, they’re much more
eager to protect us from sin than we are to avoid it. We want angels
to protect us from inconvenience, from suffering. But the angels know
that suffering can purify us, can warn us away from the one true
tragedy, which is sin, separation from God. The angels are more kind to
us than we’ll ever realize until we see the big picture in Heaven. When
you see an angel, thank God that He’s given us guardians to protect us
from the dangers we don’t even recognize.

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