The Third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice.” Rejoice is the first word of the Entrance Antiphon of today’s liturgy and is a call found in the second reading of today where Paul invites the community at Thessalonica to rejoice always. It is a positive command, one that we are supposed to keep at all times and in all circumstances, not only when things are going well for us. The reason for this rejoicing is that it is the “will of God”. This means in other words that God has ordained that all peoples everywhere rejoice.
The reason for this rejoicing is the hope that fills the heart of those who believe. We are invited into a world of reversals, a world where captives are freed, where the hungry are filled, and where the rich are sent away empty. It is certainly a world where things are turned upside down. From the point of view of social order, such reversals could be considered antipathies. But from God’s point of view, they are the signs of transformation. In order to appreciate the strength of today’s message from Isaiah, we must remember that he was speaking to people who were dispossessed, people in need of a message of hope, people in need of a promise of some kind of economic reversal. It is a message of hope to the exiles and a message from God. To these, the proclamation is the year of God’s favour and to the oppressors; it is a day of vengeance. This is the reason why the exiles must rejoice and exult. As surely as what is sown in the earth sprouts, God's faithful word will secure the growth of righteousness and praise among his people, which will be publicly displayed, as at a bridal feast, before all the nations.
This righteousness finds its fulfillment in the one whom John proclaims in the Gospel text of today. John is the first witness to Jesus, who is the one who is to come. His preaching attracted such large crowds that the Jewish hierarchy in Jerusalem decided to investigate him. The priests represented the theological authorities of the nation; the Levites were concerned with the ritual and service of the temple. John did not seem to fit into any ecclesiastical category familiar to the Jewish authorities, and his unusual success demanded an explanation. In his response those who enquire of him who he is, John makes clear that he is not the light but the one who points to the light. Though he is not asked whether he is the Christ, John emphatically states that he is not. Neither is John Elijah or the prophet. Both Elijah and the prophet were figures upon whom some of the messianic expectations of Judaism came to rest. While Elijah was expected to return as the herald of the messianic age, the prophet was a figure like Moses who was expected to lead them in a new Exodus and overcome their enemies. John is neither. He is but a voice crying in the wilderness, the voice that witnesses to and prepares the way for the one who is to come. This is the one who will reveal the glory of God in all its fullness.
In order to recognize this God who is to come, it is necessary to get rid of all stereotypes and preconceived notions that we may have of how he is going to come as these might prevent us from recognizing him when he does come. The reason many of the people of Jesus’ time could not recognize him as the Messiah, is that they had definite ideas on how the Messiah was going to come. The Messiah, they thought, would suddenly descend from heaven in his divine power and majesty and establish his reign by destroying the enemies of Israel. No one would know where he came from, humanly speaking, because he would come from God. So, when Jesus came, born of a woman like every other person, they could not recognize him. He was too ordinary, too unimpressive. He did not fit into their expected categories. He was not the triumphant, conquering, aggressive Messiah that many would have liked him to be. His presence did not instill fear in people or fill their hearts with guilt and remorse. Rather, he was incarnate love and mercy, and came to transform the world through his message of unconditional and eternal love.
Paul is conscious of this need for transformation that is necessary to accept such a Messiah. This is why he prays that the God of peace will make us perfectly holy, blameless at the coming of the Lord. In line with this thinking, the basis of the preaching of John the Baptist is repentance. His message today is the same as last week: Make straight the way of the Lord! Get rid of any obstacle that might deter his arrival. It is a call to eliminate from our lives the greed that impoverishes others, the arrogance that set us above the rest, the power that makes us abusive, and the selfishness that turns us in on our concerns alone. Today we are all aware of the destructive evil that such attitudes have spawned. We suffer the consequences of their corrosive power. But our faith reminds us that we do not have to remain victims of these forces.
There is a far better way of living in the world and, on this Third Sunday of Advent; we stand at its threshold. The question, however, is: Are we willing to step forward? Or, are we afraid to have our world turned upside down? Are we the poor who will hear the good news of reversal, or are we the ones responsible for their poverty? Are we the brokenhearted who will be healed, or have we broken their hearts? Are we the captives who will be freed, or are we the captors who have restrained them? On what side of the reversals do we find ourselves?
Advent is a time to search our hearts, to discover where, both individually and as a community, we need to change. It is a time of expectation, for we are told that there is one who has the power to heal our personal brokenness, to heal our fractured families, to heal our troubled church, to heal our bleeding world. Paul tells us that he is coming; John tells us that he is already in our midst. His presence among us should make us rejoice; the saving power that he brings should give us confidence. If we open our hearts to this saving power, we can indeed transform our society; we can renew our church, we can work toward peace in the world—we can turn our world upside down.