3rd Sunday of Advent (A)
John the Baptist is kind of odd. In last week's readings he was described as wearing clothing made of camel's hair and eating locusts and honey in the desert. It conjures up wild-man images. In the Eastern Churches he has some of the strangest iconography. He is often portrayed with wings like an angel, and holding his own severed head.
The wings indicate his role as a messenger of God. The word angel literally means "messenger" and John shares in the angelic mission of being heralds of God's Word. His severed head testifies to the death he was willing to endure for Christ.
John is the last and greatest of the prophets. In fact, Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel that "among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11:11). High praise indeed from the Son of God!
What makes John so great? John is great for the same reason that Mary, and all of the other saints are great. He recognizes in Christ the supreme good, and he points others toward that good. Just as Mary told the waiters at the wedding at Cana, "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn 2:5), John is humble enough to say, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). Both saints are great because they recognize that they are not the greatest. Both saints are great because they recognize the greatness of Christ.
John sees in Christ the highest good, the fulfillment of all God's promises. This is why Jesus sends the disciples back to John to tell him that the blind have regained their sight, the lame walk, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. Each of these things is mentioned by the prophet Isaiah as being signs that the time of salvation is at hand. John knows the scriptures. He knows what these signs mean. The one he has been waiting for is here.
That's why this Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, is called Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from the entrance antiphon for the Mass, which in Latin begins Gaudete in Domino semper or "Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious over anything; but in all manner of prayer, let your requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:4-5). We mark this day by wearing rose colored vestments in the liturgy and lighting a pink candle in our Advent wreath. It is a lessening of the penitential nature of the season, as we anticipate with excitement the approach of our Lord at Christmas.
There is a natural excitement we all feel when something good that we have been preparing for is about to happen. Students get excited the week before graduation. Engaged couples get excited the day before their wedding. We've been looking forward to these things with anticipation, and now they are so close we can almost taste them. Farmers feel this way as they watch their crops grow and can see that it is almost time for the harvest. St. James writes about this in the second reading. "See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand" (Jas 5:7-8).
John felt that same excitement at the coming of Christ. He had been patiently waiting. Christ had already come in the Incarnation, being born to Mary. But now He was beginning to go out and proclaim the Kingdom. This is what John had been waiting for. This is why, as great as he is, he is happy to get out of the way once Jesus arrives on the scene. Because something greater than he had come.
In order to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, we should follow John's example. We need to wait patiently for the Lord. I don't just mean at Christmas when we celebrate the feast of His Nativity. And I don't just mean His second coming at the end of time. I mean His coming here and now into our hearts. He comes to us in our baptism. He comes to us when we receive the Eucharist. He comes to us in all the sacraments, and whenever we read the scriptures or spend time in prayer. But it takes time for Christ's work to come to fruition in our lives. While we wait, we must be patient. (And be patient with others as James advises in our second reading (Jas 5:9)).
We must also follow John's example and get out of the way. By that I mean we have a tendency to get in our own way when it comes to our spiritual lives. We may want to grow closer to Christ. We may want to grow in holiness. But we have other competing wants and desires. We have things that we cling to that separate us from Christ. We want Christ, but we want these other things, too. We get in our own way. John teaches us that to allow Christ to reign in our hearts we need to suppress our own ego, our own selfish tendencies, and allow Him to increase in us. The saints in heaven have done this perfectly. This is why Jesus says "the least in the kingdom of heaven" is greater even than John the Baptist (Mt 11:11).
We rejoice today for many reasons. We rejoice because Advent is drawing to an end and the joy of Christmas is within sight. We rejoice at the coming of Christ in history. But most of all, we rejoice because Christ still comes to us today, here and now, in our hearts. The one John the Baptist so eagerly awaited, and so excitedly pointed toward, is here. He has come. You and I need wait no longer to open our hearts to Christ and accept His gift of salvation. And so we rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice!