12 December 2020 Homily for Third Sunday in Advent
HOMILY BY BISHOP NOEL TREANOR
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT (B) – GAUDETE SUNDAY
ST PETER’S CATHEDRAL, BELFAST
12 DECEMBER 2020
Readings : Is 61. 1-2, 10-11; Lk 1.46-50, 3-54; 1 Thess. 5.16-24; Jn 1.6-8, 19-28
I ‘I exult for joy in the Lord’ (Is 61.10)
The rose candle on the Advent wreath is lit today, traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing and joy in anticipation of the feast of the birth of the Son of God.
That note of joy is noticeable in the reading from the prophet Isaiah : ‘I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God’ (Is 61.10), in those well-known lines of Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat (Lk 1.46-55) : ‘my soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour’ and in the opening words of the second reading ‘Always rejoice’ (1Thess 5.16).
From the words of sacred scripture to the flickering flame of the rose candle, a note of rejoicing and joyfulness is launched today into our consciousness and into our world. And this, indeed, at a time of great uncertainty, disruption and dejection for many of us!
II ‘He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light’ (Jn 1.8)
This seeming contradiction and paradox – between our current situation and the message of joy – is the location and space of the enactment of the mystery of the incarnation, the ‘good news to the afflicted’ (Is 61.1). The good news of salvation is made present in the human condition in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in whom God entered the often distressed, distressing and broken condition we also are born into. With the birth of Jesus a new force of divine promise and hope has entered the realities of the human condition and history.
John the Baptist, iconic witness to that hope, is the subject of the lines we heard from the opening chapter of St John’s gospel. Last Sunday we heard St Mark’s depiction of John the Baptist. It’s worth re-reading both accounts in our Bibles. We all recall St Mark’s description of John as that figure living in the desert, wearing camel skin and eating wild honey.
In both St Mark and St John’s presentation of John the Baptist there is a focus on aspects of the life of faith pertinent for our ‘witness’ in our time:
Firstly, notice the emphasis on John as a witness, as one who pointed onwards to Jesus as Son of God. As St John put it : ‘ he came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him’ (Jn 1.7). Like the Baptist we, indeed the entire Christian community, is but a desert witness to the saving mystery of Christ. The Good News is received by us. We responded to it. We live and partly live by it amidst the trying conditions of life. Perfection is not our state; it is not the state of the Church, the Christian community : we are at once holy, frail and sinful. We are a people in permanent conversion. The Word and grace of God is active in the deserts of our existence.
And then there is that self-effacing aspect of St John’s witnessing, evoked by both evangelists : it’s John’s capacity to attract people to himself as a ‘witness to the light’ (Jn 1.7) and at the same time to transfer their attention from himself to the figure of Christ, “who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk.1.8). In this John the Baptist models something of singular spiritual importance for us Christians : both as individuals and as a Christian community, we are called to allow God to be God, to be ‘ the One who is to come’, the One who surpasses all our formulae and who in the sayings of Jesus constantly expands our minds and hearts to perspectives of self-effacement and lifestyle which make spaces for the working of God’s grace in the dynamics of life. God’s plan of salvation is not to be incarcerated in our limited categories!
The final elements in the Baptist’s response to his questioners in these lines from St John’s gospel echo St Mark’s use of the same metaphor of a slave undoing his master’s sandals, a metaphor used to suggest and emphasise the otherness, ultimately, the divinity of Jesus. John the evangelist’s lines bring a further touch with the Baptist’s reference to Jesus as the one ‘unknown’ by his questioners, Jews, like himself and Jesus of Nazareth.
Throughout St John’s gospel knowledge and knowing is a key and regulating theme. This reference to Jesus, the Christ, unrecognised and unknown to the cultic figures of the Jewish religion and faith of the time, addresses and questions also our faith-inspired recognition of Jesus, for we need to ensure that our sense of religion and the religious does not blinker or blind our recognition and support for the mysterious workings of God’s Holy Spirit in spaces and contexts beyond, or indeed, different to those we immediately, or preferentially, expect or identify with.
III The gospel perspective : expansive spiritual joy
As followers of Christ, citizens of our broken world of today, graced with the wisdom of ecumenical and inter-religious openness of mind and heart rooted in the Word of God, we recall that challenging hint of the Baptist’s voice, located in the aridity and precarious landscape of the desert – the call to open our eyes to the mystery of God’s Spirit blowing where it wills in the works, compassionate action and neighbourliness of friend and stranger, all of us children of God, sisters and brothers of the Christ of God.
In this insight, given us in the birth of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, who surprisingly presented the Samaritan (Lk 10.25-37) and the lady at the well of Jacob below the village of Sichar (Jn 4.1-26) as models for us, we rejoice today, Gaudete Sunday, and always.