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Sunday, Third Week of Advent

December 12, 2010

Blessed Gaudete Sunday!

Gaudete means “Rejoice!”,
and when the Mass was still done in Latin, that 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!

This week we get a break from our Advent violet for the more cheerful rose.
You will probably see that in the candle lit on the Advent wreath this week,
and possibly even in your priest’s vestments
(although few priests have rose vestments anymore).

The use of rose to mark having passed the halfway point of a penitential season
actually started in Lent.
One source claims that members of the Early Church exchanged roses
on the fourth Sunday of Lent (just past the halfway point of the season)
as a sign of mingled sorrow and joy (soft petals and prickly thorns).

What is more certain is that rose vestments are used for the ceremony of the papal blessing of the golden rose on the fourth Sunday of Lent
(which was referred to as an ancient custom in the 12th century).
This rose, which is fragranced with incense and set with rubies (it was once tinted red),
is a symbol of Christ, the Flower that sprang from the Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1).
The fragrance signifies the sweet aroma of Christ,
which should be diffused throughout the whole world by His followers
(see II Corinthians 2:14-15). The color and thorns remind us of His Passion.

Once rose was established as a color of joy in Lent, it was used in a similar way in Advent.
It is especially appropriate as we look forward to the O Antiphon for December 19th:

O Root of Jesse
A standard to the peoples,
Before Whom kings are mute,
To Whom all nations shall appeal
Come to deliver us; delay, please, no longer

A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom
-Isaiah 11:1

Lord God, may we, Your people,
who look forward to the birthday of Christ
experience the joy of salvation
and celebrate that feast with love and thanksgiving.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Opening Prayer from today’s Mass)

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.

That’s not immediately obvious.
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.
However, 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), paints quite a different picture.

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’s 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!

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