THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT, 2017
THE ERA OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Readings: 1st- Is. 61:1-2, 10-11; 2nd- 1 Thes. 5:16-24; Gospel- John 1:6-8, 19-28
The period preceding Christmas can be described as John the Baptist era. John does two things in today’s gospel: 1. He clarifies his own identity. 2. He turns our attention to Christ. The gospel opens up this way, “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (Jn. 1:6-8). John is sent by God, he is the voice of the one crying in the desert urging believers to prepare the way, and baptizing them with water. John is not the Christ.
In today’s gospel, different groups exert pressures upon John regarding his identity and role. The Jews from Jerusalem pressure him asking, “Who are you?” They think that John must be either Elijah, the Prophet or the One who is to come. Some Pharisees also pressure him asking why he should baptize if he is not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet. “What have you to say for yourself?”, they quiz him. John’s response is, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord”. John is unambiguous in explaining his position, “I am not the Christ”. That defines the meaning of his era; a period of preparation and waiting.
The second part of John the Baptist’s mission is to turn our attention towards Christ. John bears testimony to the light so that that all might believe in Christ through him. John is like the altar server. The altar server usually leads the procession, announces the commencement of the liturgy. John the Baptist announces the beginning of the Liturgy of salvation made manifest in Christ Jesus. He says, “I baptize you with water, but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie” (Jn. 1:26-27). John’s role is to bear witness to Christ, “the light of the world” (Jn.8:12).
One of my professors told us a story of her experience in school. She said she was in for her final exams in the fall. They had all 5 of their course exams (all comprehensive) on one day. Then the first professor met them in the class at 8am, gave them their exam and waited for them to be done. When they went to turn in the test, they were given another for the second class, and so on for all 5 exams. They were exhausted and sleep-deprived. Somewhere a few hours in, one of their classmates who had actually taken a 10minute nap (in the middle of the exam!) lifted up her head with sleep lines on her face and shouted, "y'all, Christmas is coming. No matter what, Christmas is coming." You know what that means for a student in such a tensed atmosphere. It means more than just enduring exams to get to the holiday break. It means that no matter how difficult and painful life gets, no matter how tired the students are, the Messiah is coming. This world can be tough, a brutal place where the innocent suffer and the undeserving are oppressed; 2017 might certainly have been no exception. Yet there is great beauty in the season.
The prophet Isaiah’s message in the first reading is given to a people on their return from exile. Israel come back to find that their land is in ruins and that injustice and poverty had pervaded the land. The prophet foresees great things happening to the people. He foresees a jubilee year, freedom and liberation. And he writes, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God” (Is. 61:1-2). This is what the coming of Christ announces; what Advent reminds us of, that we are not only suffering. We are also working. We are still waiting. We are altogether preparing. Ultimately, we trust the Redeemer to complete what we cannot do, to come back for us, to heal us, redeem and set the captives free.
Saint Paul invites us to do three things within this period: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:16). Can we just do those things? –Rejoice! Pray! Give thanks! We must rejoice each time recognizing the love of God in our lives. We must pray to God who is the reason for our joy. And we must give thanks at all times remembering always the great favors that God bestows on us. Saint Paul states, “for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus”. God wills to free us from the entanglements of worldly nightmares.
John the Baptist era reminds us of the great coming of Christ. He announces the good things that await us in Christ Jesus. Like the student in my professor’s story, I say to you, "y'all, Christmas is coming. No matter what, Christmas is coming." Christmas is coming, and must come. No matter what you face, Christmas is coming. No matter what you fail to accomplish, Christmas must come. Some of us live in anxiety. Some live in fear. Some live in uncertainty. Some, in anger and sadness. Works, family, children, health, relationships, politics, etc. There’s always something driving us crazy at one time or the other. Those things cannot compare with the joy brought to us by Christ. They cannot deprive us of the Christmas joy. The will of God for us is joy and happiness. God wants us to bear witness to the light that Jesus brings at Christmas.
The era of John the Baptist is the era of announcement, of preparation, of waiting. It is the era of constant reminder that Christmas is coming. It is the era of bearing witness to the light of God’s goodness by our words and actions. The needy need to hear the voice that Christmas is coming. Captives need to hear that Christmas is coming. The broken-hearted need to hear that Christmas is coming. Prisoners need to hear that Christmas is coming. The sick need to hear that Christmas is coming. The bereaved need to hear that Christmas is coming. Let us bring glad tidings to those around us. Like John the Baptist, we must bear witness to the light. Christmas is coming! God wills us to be joyful.