The Third Sunday of Advent is also called Gaudete Sunday because of the first word of the entrance antiphon. Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice.” Advent represents all of salvation history leading up to the Incarnation of Our Lord, and sometimes we lose sight of the fact that, after the Fall, the world was a harsh and unforgiving spiritual desert for a long time due to sin. Now those who were faithful to the Lord are about to be rewarded, and that is a cause for rejoicing. A new life is about to bloom that will lead to a new life to bloom in all of us: the life of Christ.
Generations of prophets encouraged, harangued, explained, and warned God’s chosen people, and other than a faithful remnant the appeals on the Lord’s behalf fell on deaf ears. In today’s First Reading Isaiah paints the coming of the Lord in terms of relief and new life. Dried and arid land comes into full bloom. People withered by poor health are restored. Injustice and the pain injustice brings are addressed and lifted. He describes the joy of being ransomed from the slavery of sin to be able to return to the Temple on Mt. Zion rejoicing. Our Lord takes up these prophecies in today’s Gospel to encourage John during his imprisonment.
John described himself as a voice crying out in the desert; in today’s Second Reading Paul describes the prophets as suffering hardship and showing heroic patience, waiting for the fruits of their work to be seen. Paul also describes the patience of farmers and gardeners who plant, till, and prepare the soil, watching and hoping for rain to make the fruits of their work bloom. John’s in the dungeon this Sunday and he’s waiting for some sign of the “precious fruit of the earth” Paul describes. In Our Lord’s works John sees something starting to sprout, and Our Lord tells him through his disciples that there are signs of new life coming into bloom in order to help him persevere in faith and hope.
To understand the momentous revelation Our Lord makes today for his listeners we have to imagine what it was like to hear prophet after prophet promise, generation after generation, century after century that the Messiah was coming, only to have to keep waiting. Today Our Lord tells them, and us, that the wait is all but over: John the Baptist is the last prophet, the prophet who would come as a new Elijah right before the arrival of the Messiah. A promise made through the prophets for centuries is about to be fulfilled in Jesus. In Advent we celebrate that long wait ending, but also that events are about to take a dramatic turn for the better. When Our Lord describes John as least in the Kingdom of Heaven, he is telling us that if we considered John blessed to be a prophet with a special mission and relationship with God, we would be even more blessed if we believed in Our Lord and formed a part of his Kingdom, a Kingdom he’ll inaugurate with his incarnation and birth. Advent is a time to help us grow in joyful expectation and hope. Let’s ask Our Lord for a great faith that his promises will be fulfilled in our lives if we believe in him. Let’s ask for his blessings as we prepare for Christmas.
In today’s Gospel we see a glimpse of when the Advent and Christmas party is over. John the Baptist has dedicated himself to his mission of prophet to the Messiah, and now he’s in a dungeon for it at the whims of a cruel tyrant whose “wife” wants him dead. He also knows that prophets usually don’t live to a ripe old age, so the doubt comes: was it worth it? Is Jesus really the one? John’s disciples are bringing him news, but it’s no surprise that in the gloom of a dungeon your outlook can get equally gloomy. His decision shows great humility: imagine sending your own disciples to ask whether you’ve been prophesying the right thing all along. It also shows faith: he asks Jesus with simplicity whether he is the one or not and doesn’t demand proof. How many Advent and Christmas seasons have you lived? If a fresh hope in the coming Savior has given way to a gloomy routine of another holiday season that will come and go too quickly, now is the time to ask Our Lord to remind you of all the miracles he has worked in your life in order to re-fortify your hope. Don’t be shy about asking him.
Readings: Isaiah 35:1–6a, 10; Psalm 146:6–10; James 5:7–10; Matthew 11:2–11. See also 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Cycle A, 2nd Week of Advent, Thursday and 3rd Week of Advent, Wednesday.