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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Gaudete Sunday: Go Tell Others What You See and Hear

Sermon by Fr. Joseph Mungai
Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 11, 2016
St. John the Apostle Awasi Catholic Church, Kisumu Archdiocese, Kenya

The common theme running through today’s
readings ( Isaiah 35:1-6, 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11) is one of joy and encouragement. The readings stress the need for patience in those awaiting the rebirth of Jesus in their hearts and lives. They give us a messages of hope—for people almost three millennia ago, for people at the beginning of the first millennium and for people today. 

Today is called Gaudete Sunday because today’s Mass begins with the opening antiphon: “Gaudete in Domino semper,” i.e., “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Today, to express our joy in the coming of Jesus as our Savior, we light the rose candle, and the priest may wear rose vestments. 

Pope Francis in rose vestments
The prophet Isaiah, in the first reading, encourages the exiled Jews in Babylon to believe that God is going to save them and transform their lives. In the second reading, James the Apostle encourages the early Christians to be patient, “because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” 

Finally, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus encourages John the Baptist to cast away the popular political expectations about the Messiah and simply to accept his healing and preaching ministry as the fulfillment of the messianic prophecy of Isaiah.

Isaiah tries to stir up in his exiled brothers and sisters the hope of their return to Israel by assuring them of the saving power of Yahweh in their lives. He reminds them that it was through their disloyalty to God that they had lost their liberty and had been taken as slaves to Babylon where they lived in servitude for 60 years (598-538 BC). 

The Jews were finally set free by Cyrus (who had captured Babylon), and were allowed to return to their native land, rebuild the Temple and serve their God once more as His Chosen People. 

The prophet assures them that God will lead them back to their land in this second exodus (6th century B.C.), as He led their ancestors from Egypt to the Promised Land in the first exodus (13th century BC). He is going to do three things for them. 1) He will transform the wasteland lying between their land of exile and Israel into a new Garden of Eden to facilitate their journey. 2) The weak and the sick will be strengthened for the journey. 3) They will reach their destination singing and crowned with glory. The assurance of this second exodus is chosen for Advent, because both Exodus events foreshadow the coming of the Messiah.

In the second reading from James, the expectation of Jesus' imminent return did not last very long in the early Church. Even within Saint Paul's lifetime, that expectation had waned. The Apostles advised the Christians to bear witness to Christ through their heroic lives without waiting for the Parousia in their lifetime. 

Hence, in the second reading, James encourages the fearful, frustrated and persecuted early Christians to be patient. Like Isaiah, James tries to show his Christian community that what they have been hoping for was already happening. Though he stresses patience and determination, James
also reminds them that
"the Judge stands at the gate." Just as the prophets believed that what they were proclaiming was already happening, the Christians needed to behave as though the returned risen Jesus were already influencing their lives. 

James uses the analogy of a farmer who must wait patiently for the ground to yield its fruit. In the same way, we must trust that God is bringing abundance into our lives, although we cannot see it yet. St. James' warning is clear: If anyone among you has hitherto neglected his duties to God, let him listen now to that warning and put his conscience and his life right with God.

Today's Gospel describes how Isaiah's vision of Israel's glorious future is fulfilled unexpectedly by the coming of the promised Messiah and by his healing and preaching mission. But the Jews in general expected a political Messiah who would reestablish the Davidic kingdom after overthrowing the Roman government. Hence, most of them were scandalized by Jesus’ peaceful preaching and shameful death. 

It has been conjectured disciples of John the Baptist continued to insist that John was indeed the Messiah, and they awaited his return, causing problems to early Christians. Hence, all four Evangelists highlighted John’s important role as the Messiah’s herald but emphasized that John’s was a secondary and subordinate role in salvation history. Matthew, in the second part of today’s Gospel, presents Jesus, the true Messiah, as paying the highest compliments to John the Baptist as his herald and the last of the prophets, and to the courage with which John proclaimed his prophetic convictions.

Scripture scholars over the centuries have wondered why John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if He were the one who was to come. There are two possible explanations: 1) John knew that Jesus was the Christ and, as a prisoner, he wanted his disciples to follow Jesus as their new master. So he sent them to ask Jesus this question and presumed that, once they had met Jesus, they would see for themselves that he was the Messiah and so would become followers of Jesus. Or 2) John began to doubt Jesus’ identity as the promised Messiah. 

The silent healing, preaching, saving, and empowering ministry of Jesus was a surprise to John and to those who expected a fire-and-brimstone Messiah. Besides, Jesus had not yet fulfilled John's prediction that the One-to-come would baptize the repentant in the Holy Spirit. 

Nor did Jesus conform to popular Jewish beliefs about a warrior and a political Messiah who would bring political, social, and economic deliverance to Israel. Instead, Jesus pronounced blessings on the poor in spirit, the meek, and peacemakers (5:1-11). He called his disciples to love their enemies (5:42-48). He warned his disciples not to judge others (7:1-5). For John, these teachings might have seemed to weaken rather than to strengthen the Messiah’s cause. Furthermore, Jesus moved away from Jerusalem, the home of the Temple and the center of religious authority, and began his ministry in Galilee among the common people (4:12). 

John proclaimed the power of the coming Messiah to bring in a new age, and instead found himself imprisoned in the dungeon of Herod’s prison-fortress at Machaerus, southeast of the Dead Sea. He may have been wondering why the expected Messiah was not setting him free as Isaiah (61:1) had predicted. John may have found sympathetic doubters among his own disciples who might have wondered how the Messiah could leave their own teacher in prison, and how He could
usher in the kingdom without political or military might. This may have been why John sent his disciples to dispel his doubt, asking:
"Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus' generosity to dispel doubts met John's humility to accept correction. Instead of criticizing Jesus or breaking away from him, John approached Jesus through his disciples. The disciples asked Jesus whether he was the one to come or if they should look for another. John may have had his doubts, but he was open to hearing Jesus say that he was, indeed, the one! 

John must have recognized the Scriptural allusions behind Jesus' answer. Isaiah 29:18 speaks of the deaf hearing and the blind seeing. Isaiah 35:6 speaks of the lame leaping like a deer. Isaiah 26:19 speaks of the dead becoming alive. Isaiah 61:1 speaks of good news for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives and prisoners. These were signs of the Messiah's coming. 

Jesus could have rebuked John for his doubts, but instead offered him a blessing. Jesus had not lived up to John's expectations, but John did not allow that to be a stumbling block (skandalizomia). Soon enough, Jesus would deal with the people of his hometown, who took offense at him (13:57). Complimenting John, Jesus says that John is the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 ("See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me"), presenting the Baptist as the end-time messenger, the forerunner of the Messiah.

There are several life messages in these readings from Scripture.  We need to learn how to survive a faith crisis. From a theological perspective, this entire episode helps us to understand how the experience of a faith crisis can play a role in our spiritual and emotional development. If John the Baptist, even after having had a direct encounter with Jesus the Messiah, could
question, doubt and question his Faith, then so can we. If disillusionment is a necessary precondition for a more resilient faith, then we, too, must be open to its possibilities. In moments of doubt, despair and disillusionment, we are, indeed, in good company. 

Occasional doubts – even horrifying doubts – are one thing, but doubts that persist in the face of every Biblical remedy demand careful attention. Let us remember the truth that all our Christian dogmas are based on our trust and faith in the Divinity of Jesus Who taught them, and on His Divine authority by which He authorized the Church to teach what He taught. It is up to us to learn our faith in depth, so that God will be able to dispel our doubts. 

 “Go and tell others what you hear and see.” In medieval times, this day—the Third Sunday of Advent—was called Gaudete Sunday, as an equivalent to Laetare Sunday during Lent. As
we pray today, we also rejoice that the Lord does not fail to show his power and might. We rejoice at the thought that Jesus is going to be reborn in our lives, deepening in us His gifts of love, mercy, forgiveness and the spirit of humble and sacrificial service during this Christmas season. During this season, let us joyfully share God’s bountiful grace, forgiveness, and mercy with others. What Jesus commanded John’s disciples, he commands us as well: Go and tell others what you hear and see.

We need to open our hearts and let God transform our lives: We, too, should be encouraged by today’s readings. They remind us that our lives can also be transformed, if we are patient and place our trust in God. The message of Advent is that God is present among us, in our everyday lives. We must prepare our hearts to recognize and welcome Him. 

“If a man is the center of his [own] life, everyone around him becomes hell for him because everyone around him interferes with
Rejoice! Fr. Joe Mungai visiting the United States in winter 
him and obstructs what he wants to do” (Jean Paul Sartre). Let us believe in our hearts the Gospel message about Jesus given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Will we allow the Holy Spirit, through these Gospel reports, to create a
metánoia (a change of thinking about God, ourselves, and the world) in us during Advent?

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