Third Sunday of Advent (Year A), “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord” (Jas 5:7)
Saint Damasus I Pope; Blessed Arthur Bell, Franciscan martyr
Lord, come and save us
“Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord” (Jas 5:7)
The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday i.e. “Be ye joyful!” or “Be ye glad!” from the first word of the Mass Entrance Antiphon. Therefore, we are invited to rejoice because the feast of the Lord’s coming is now near, spiritually and also literally (in fact, December 25 is on the horizon). In this context of joyful anticipation, today’s Word of God urges us to meditate on a fundamental aspect of faith in God and in Jesus, “the one who is to come”, with our gaze still fixed on St. John the Baptist, the “forerunner”. It is about constancy in faith in the midst of life’s trials and difficulties. This is the Christian and missionary virtue so necessary for every disciple-missionary of Christ in today’s world.
1. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”- The doubts of John the Baptist, God’s messenger
The Gospel confronts us with an imprisoned John the Baptist, who sends his disciples to ask Jesus for clarification, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” We can therefore wonder if John the Baptist, the prophet sent by God, had actually had any doubts about the identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth as the one he himself had announced and later referred to as God’s messiah, “the one who is to come” (as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel).
Church fathers such as St. Augustine, St. Hilary, or St. John Chrysostom explained that with this question to Jesus, John the Baptist wanted to clarify the matter only for his disciples and not for himself, who in fact had always remained steadfast in the faith, despite his imprisoned situation. Instead, the context of the Gospel seems to lead us to suppose that John also had some fluctuations in his faith in Jesus, God’s messiah, the One who would come at the end of time to execute God’s judgment on the world and also to liberate the oppressed and imprisoned—like himself at that time. So much so that Jesus wanted to end His response with a special beatitude which can be counted as an indirect but cordial and very personal invitation to John: “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me”.
It should be pointed out that John’s doubts did not concern his faith in the almighty God of Israel who will come to save His people. Rather, they concerned the mission, activities, and, consequently, the messianic identity of Jesus. In fact, as pointed out by St. Matthew the Evangelist, John sent his disciples to Jesus with such a premise, “heard [...] of the works of the Christ” i.e., “works of the messiah” i.e., “messianic works” performed by Jesus. The prophets of Israel write this in fact, particularly in the book of Isaiah, concerning the liberating activities of the Anointed One of God in the Spirit: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me (...) He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners [...]” (Is 61:1). John could therefore have been thinking, “If this is so, then why am I in prison for the cause of God and Jesus, the messiah, does not seem very interested in my release”?
John’s doubts turn out to be legitimate, indeed “grounded” in Scripture. They concern the mission of Jesus of Nazareth, but also reflexively, most likely, lead John to doubt his own mission as a prophet, forerunner, and herald of Christ. Such a moment of darkness that God left to his prophet, his “special envoy”, would therefore be very meaningful: an episode both revealing and educational for all of us Christians, witnesses and heralds of Christ in today’s world. If some moments of crisis happened to the best like John the Baptist, it will also happen to us, at times: to fail to understand the ways of the Lord and the mission of Christ, precisely because of our human limitations. Such an experience, however, is permitted by God, because it is salutary for our growth in understanding his mission and thus our mission as his co-workers, provided that we resort directly to Jesus in the moment of crisis, just as John the Baptist did.
2. “Blessed Is the One Who Takes No Offense At Me!”
Interestingly, in responding to John the Baptist, Jesus invites them to reflect again on His works, seen and heard by John’s disciples (“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them”). This will be their simple mission: to witness and confirm Jesus’ messianic identity through the proclamation of the works mentioned. These are precisely messianic works, foretold by prophets such as Isaiah (first reading) and now fulfilled and proven by God in Jesus, summarized in the emblematic fact that “the poor have the good news proclaimed to them”.
Jesus’ own particular invitation to the doubting Jews should be recalled in this regard: “If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me; but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize [and understand] that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn 10:37-38). Therefore, these are the authentic works of God that Jesus performed in the Messianic time for the sake of the people, and they demonstrate the meek and merciful face of God and His Christ, who acts without vengeance for a nationalistic earthly justice, as some at that time believed and hoped. The point of reference will always be the person of Christ and His way of acting that gives the true and authentic fulfillment of the Scriptures according to God’s thinking. Let us remember: God is always greater than any human scheme, the result of the projection of what God should do according to merely human thinking. We are all invited to purify our thinking in light of the actions and teaching of Christ, Wisdom of God incarnate, who proclaims, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me”.
Such purification is always needed in the life of faith with Jesus, and even more so in the mission of evangelization with Him. For a true disciple-missionary of Christ, it will always be helpful and healthy to measure one’s mission with Christ’s, to avoid carrying it out according to human thoughts and criteria. And if anyone by chance now experiences some moment of crisis or trial, when the “mission” does not go as he or she expected, one only needs to thank the Lord for this and welcome it as an opportune time to enter into the deeper understanding of Christ’s mission, the mission of God that Christ accomplished and later entrusted to His disciples.
3. Joyful constancy or constant joy in faith and mission in waiting for His coming
We therefore joyfully continue our preparation for the coming of the Lord, and this on both the existential (preparation for the final coming of Christ) and temporal (preparation for Christmas) levels. I repeat what St. James the Apostle exhorts in his letter (second reading), “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord”. This precious attitude, constancy, proves to be essential not only for living faith in expectation of the Lord, but also for carrying out with patience and determination every mission of God in the midst of difficulties and trials. It is no coincidence that a national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies, a former missionary himself in Kenya, often speaks, with an English neologism, of “stickability” as a fundamental characteristic of missionaries (who thus remain “adherent”, faithful, to the mission despite everything).
In this regard, in St. James the inspired image 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” is shown to be more than appropriate. May it be in the minds of all disciple-missionaries of Christ, especially those experiencing a difficult time, to find serenity and peace in the greater understanding of the divine plan. Let us hold dear to heart God’s exhortation for all of us through St. James the Apostle: “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord”, including the example of John the Baptist, the greatest “among those born of women”, a prophet-messenger of Christ.
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom from the mouth of the Most High,
you fill the whole world. With strength and gentleness you order all things:
come to teach us the way of prudence