WAITING IN TEARS, REJOICING IN HOPE (3rd Sunday of Advent)

Catholic Homily/Reflection
3rd Sunday of Advent - December 16, 2007

Not only is there a collage (and a seeming clash!) of images in today’s readings – deserts coming to full bloom, farmers waiting for rain and harvest, prison and prophetism; one also comes to grips with a mélange of feelings ... Isaiah waxes hopeful, painting a picture of regeneration, with the “desert,” the “parched land,” and the “steppe” all coming to full flowering, and all exploding in joyful song. James, for his part, extols patience through the image of a farmer waiting “for the precious fruits of the earth.” With a tone that seems to speak of ambivalence, John the Baptist, gives a puzzled question to Jesus through his emissaries: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

Gaudete Sunday, which is meant to be a day of “rejoicing,” midway as we are through the liturgical period of “waiting” and “preparation” for the “parousia” or the coming of the Lord, finds us with a mixed bag of images and feelings – and I would venture to add – questions!

We are in a situation not much different from that of Isaiah, James, and John the Baptist. Isaiah speaks to a people in bitter exile. James writes to an incipient church community frazzled by the imperfection of its members, and puzzled by just when this awaited “coming” was going to be! The situation then was as human as it could be, so as to merit a little admonition from him: “Do not complain about one another … Behold the judge is standing outside the gates!” John the Baptist, who speaks about the “one whose sandals [he] is not even worthy of untying,” the one on whose behalf he enthusiastically proclaimed: “Prepare the way of the Lord … Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain shall be made low… the winding road shall be made straight and rough ways made smooth,” was not exactly having a nice, smooth ride. He was, in fact, in prison!

This is the same human situation that Gaudete Sunday finds us in – a situation of various types of exiles, of interpersonal strifes, disunity, and mutual criticism, and even more varied types of imprisonment. We are no better off than Isaiah, the exiled Hebrews, James and the early Christian community, and John the Baptist about to perish literally in prison and suffer a martyr’s death for somebody’s personal convenience and “peace of mind.” Like then, we need to hear a message that puts back meaning into an otherwise meaningless existence. Like them, we need to see first hand the unfolding mystery of a God who saves, a God who reveals Himself, as much in experiences of tears, as in experiences of rejoicing. Like John the Baptist, who for a short while wavered because what he “saw and heard” Jesus did was not becoming a reality as far as he was concerned, our faith can also waver. The one who “would set the captives free,” who gave sight to the blind, who made the lame walk, the deaf hear, cleansed lepers and proclaimed the good news to the poor … Was he or was he not? Was he the one, or ought he to have waited for another?

But the message of Gaudete Sunday is not for those who are already rejoicing. The message of today is not for those who are already filled, the already free, the smug, and the complacent. The message of Gaudete Sunday is for those who still “mourn, for they will be comforted.” Today’s message is for those who still “hunger for righteousness, the poor, the suffering, for they will be satisfied.” The message of today, as it has always been the message of the Savior, is for those who despite being in “prison,” like John the Baptist, can still afford to be “peacemakers.” The message rings clear for those who, despite being hurt, can still forgive; who, despite being shackled, can still be free to speak the right, the true, the good, the beautiful – even if it offends the sensibilities of people who don’t want to hear it.

Gaudete Sunday is a song of rejoicing and blessedness for people who seem to have no right at all to rejoice. Gaudete Sunday, once again, is a story of the famous “reversals” we have been referring to over the past Sundays in this series of reflections. Gaudete Sunday is a message redolent and replete with hope as only a people in pain can understand. He who knew the rigors and harshness of imprisonment – John the Baptist – also knew how to speak of freedom, of deliverance, of salvation. In life, he preached eloquently. In death, he prophesied convincingly and definitively.

Gaudete Sunday is not for those whom the Lord addressed his famous “woes.” “Woe to you who are rich, you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep …”

Gaudete Sunday is a mixed bag of images and feelings. At a time when all we see is the drought of optimism in a world that walks in the darkness of consumerism, individualism, competition, the mad dash for more and more comfort, and the specter of terrorism and counter-terrorism hangs like Damocles’ sword over everyone of us, it is hard to rejoice. At a time when we are beset and besotted by a train of trials – “sweat and care and cumber; sorrows passing number,” it is hard to rejoice. When all we see is desolation, when we fall victim to people’s idle talk, to others’ unjust “complaints” and criticism, when “all I endeavor in disappointment end,” it is hard to be patient. It is hard to go on focusing our thoughts and minds – and hopes – on him who claimed to be the “way, the truth, and the life,” and the tendency is to go some place else for solace. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”

Gaudete Sunday is for you. Gaudete Sunday is for me. It is for all of us, for we all basically are exiles who still live in this valley of tears. Gaudete Sunday is for every believer, whose beliefs are being sorely tested and tried by what we see and hear, and experience. And even believers do have their moments of questioning, their temporary state of desolation and dryness.

Isaiah, the Jews in exile, James, John the Baptist … they all were in conditions familiar to those who “mourn, suffer, hunger, and who are poor.” People in pain, they knew what they spoke of. People of faith, they saw more than the average person. People of hope, they saw far beyond their tears, their sorrows, and their pain. They were people of vision. They were people with an alternative imagination and consciousness who saw “cadences of home,” and images of hope in what, otherwise, could not be mistaken for any other thing than plain and simple desolation.

They speak to us now. They rouse us to a fresh reframing of our list of “woes.” As Isaiah saw visions of swords being turned into plowshares, our tears will become overflowing torrents that will water the parched land which will “bloom with abundant flowers.” As James saw the image of a farmer awaiting rains whether “early or late,” so shall we see copious fruits of a life well-lived.

What do you think will you find out in the desert? “What did you get out to the desert to see?” What do you expect people who are brave and strong enough to face their life’s deserts? Do you expect to see a “reed being swayed by the wind?” No. You don’t expect a weakling to last in the desert. You expect to see a person of strength, of courage, of faith, of hope, and of love. You expect to see a prophet in the caliber of John the Baptist! And that was exactly what Jesus’ disciples saw in John the Baptist – a prophet par excellence, who prophesied bravely in life and even more so in death!

Gaudete, dear friends. I say it again, as St. Paul does: “Rejoice … the Lord is near!”

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