This weekend is Gaudete (Rejoice!) Sunday. Our Gospel gives us John the Baptist in prison as our meditation. Isn’t that a bit downbeat?
Gospel (Read Mt 11:2-11)
St. Matthew tells us that John the Baptist “heard in prison of the works of the Christ” in Galilee, undoubtedly from his own disciples. He sent those disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are You the One Who is to come, or should we look for another?” What prompted this question? It is highly unlikely that John himself had any doubts about Jesus. John was the very first one to proclaim about Him, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). He recognized Jesus as the one Who would be sacrificed, like the Passover lamb, for us. Some have suggested that John began to waiver in his conviction when he ended up in prison for criticizing Herod. Perhaps he expected deliverance by the Messiah. However, John knew the fate of all the prophets God had ever sent to His people. They were resisted, persecuted, and sometimes killed. Surely his imprisonment did not surprise him. He knew that Jesus, too, would be opposed to the point of shedding His blood. Did he really expect to be sprung from his martyrdom? A more plausible explanation of this episode is that John’sdisciples were disappointed in Jesus’ seeming indifference to John’s situation, so the Baptist sent them to Jesus to clear up their doubts.
The answer Jesus gave to John’s disciples should have been very satisfying to them. He explained His work entirely within the context of the prophecy Isaiah had given long ago (more on this in our First Reading). Jesus wanted John’s disciples to know that He was doing the work of His Father, keeping promises that had been made through the prophets. Jesus did not save John from martyrdom, and even that was part of what had been prophesied of Him. Isaiah was clear that God’s Anointed One would come as a Suffering Servant, not in great power but in apparent weakness (see Isa 53). However, by Jesus’ day, Israel’s hope and expectation of the Messiah was centered on His kingship. They thought the king was coming to free His people from political oppression. John, sitting in prison, looked to John’s disciples as the perfect opportunity for Jesus to begin this kind of reign. Jesus had to tell them: “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at Me.” His kingship was not going to be like that.
So, where is our Gaudete joy in this Gospel? First, we should be mindful of how Jesus detailed for John’s disciples how precisely He was fulfilling all the promises God had made about Him. Are we now, ourselves, waiting for promises of God to be kept? Of course, we are, so our response to this reminder of God’s trustworthiness can only be to rejoice! With patience, we can be sure that He will not disappoint us.
Second, Jesus says something remarkable about every Christian believer here as He teaches the crowds about John: “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” What did Jesus mean? We know He wasn’t speaking about John’s personal sanctity—his willingness to live and die in obedience to God leaves all of us humbled. Rather, Jesus was making a contrast for us. As great a prophet as John was, he lived and died within the Old Covenant. He prepared the way of the Lord, but he did not live to see its fullness unleashed on the earth. That fullness is offered to us in the New Covenant, and even a tiny, newborn baby who is baptized into Jesus experiences that in a way John didn’t. What should our response be to this marvel? Rejoice!
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I know sometimes You aren’t doing what I want You to do, but I know You are always doing what You promised to do. This is my Advent joy.
First Reading (Read Isa 35:1-6a, 10)
Here is another splendid prophecy from Isaiah about the coming of our God. He describes a glorious fruitfulness on the earth, as well as a healing of all that is so debilitating, which is salvation. We see here the very images Jesus used to assure John’s disciples that, ultimately, those who trust God’s promises will not be disappointed. The Incarnation was the first step in God’s plan to keep the bold promise made through Isaiah: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God … He comes to save you.” It will take time, including our own, for the unfolding of all God’s triumphant plan, but the promise to us is sure: “Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion [the heavenly city of God] singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.”
Possible response: Heavenly Father, I rejoice to know a day is coming when “sorrow and mourning will flee.” Help me patiently wait for it.
Psalm (Read Ps 146:6-10)
If we are wondering what promises from God our lives count on, daily, this psalm outlines some of them:
Justice for the oppressed
Food for the hungry
Freedom for captives
Sight for the blind
Elevation for those bowed down
Protection for strangers, the fatherless, and widows
An end to wickedness
And this is only one psalm about God’s promises! Surely today we can sing, with great joy and confidence, “Lord, come and save us.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Jam 5:7-10)
St. James gives us helpful instruction in our Advent time of waiting for God to keep all His promises: “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” We need patience in order for our faith not to fail us. St. James uses the example of the farmer “who waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” This is an interesting image for us to ponder. A fruitful crop must have all the rains it needs before it can be harvested. Some rains will come early, but some will come late. If we think of the rain as an image of God’s direct action to make human history and our own personal histories fruitful, then we must be prepared for dry spells from time to time. In our Gospel, the great miracles Jesus worked on earth were the “early rains,” evidences of His kingship. John’s martyrdom, as well as His own, would look to us like dry spells, as if the crop had been lost. However, the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost were the “late rains.” All was not lost!
St. James encourages us to “make our hearts firm” in our waiting and to seek virtue (“do not complain … about one another”). Then he gives us excellent advice: “Take as an example of hardship and patience … the prophets who spoke in the Name of the Lord.” The prophets teach us that our Advent waiting will one day be over, and that is cause to rejoice.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, patience in our age of instant gratification is a hard virtue to practice. Strengthen Your people to wait for the “late rains” of Your love on this world and not give up.
image: The first page of Gaudete in the original version of the Piae Cantiones/ Wikimedia Commons