Advent III, 13 Dec 2020
Well, Sisters and Brothers, here we are on one of two Sundays in the Christian Year when we are “In the Pink” for today is Gaudete Sunday and is so called because the Entrance Antiphon, in latin, for this day, begins with the word “Gaudete” which means “Rejoice” and translates into English, more fully, as “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” The Advent Candle for this Sunday is pink and the altar is covered in pink and the vestments are pink to signify a little light relief in the solemn Season of Advent and the violet of penitence gives way to the more rejoicing Rose Pink.
We have, of course, from our devotional books and papers, discovered that the whole them of Advent is a focus on the coming of Jesus as the Saviour in three ways: his first, his present, and his final Advent and the reading for this Sunday deal with rejoicing in the Lord – Christian joy as well as the mission of St. John the Baptist and his connection with Advent. The well-known theologian Henri Nouwen wisely described the difference between joy and happiness. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy, he puts it is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, `the present and tedious pandemic` (my addition) or even death – can take that love away.” Thus joy can be present even in the midst of sadness.
Note that today`s Gospel reading changes tack – for the passage is not from Mark which is usual for YEAR B but from Chapter 1 of St John`s Gospel where, immediately after the prologue of the Gospel we find ourselves introduced to St. John the Baptist in a most unusual way for John tells his hearers and questioners, and us by implication, who and what HE IS NOT! He says he “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, `make straight the way of the Lord`” which encapsulates what we heard in the Old Testament reading last Sunday from Isaiah 40.
We need to look at the person of John the Baptist for he acknowledges that he is not the Christ but , that as the forerunner he was to point out the Messiah. He had no doubt that he himself was not the Messiah and so he disabuses those who thought he might be the Anointed One and in speaking the truth he dispels their misguided perceptions.
Secondly, he declares that he is not the Prophet which refers us back to Deuteronomy 18; 15 where Moses tells the people that God would raise up a prophet like himself. Similarly to the title of Christ or Messiah, the title of Prophet, with a capital “P”, for such a title belongs only to Our Lord – John is NOT the Prophet. John the Baptist was a prophet of course, in fact the last of the Old Testament Prophets and the first of the New Testament Prophets, but he is NOT the Prophet of which Moses spoke.
Thirdly, John tells the questioning crowd and lawyers that he is NOT Elijah. This contrasts with what we find in Matthew 11:4 where Jesus states that John the Baptist is Elijah and the Gospels of S. Mark and S. Luke have similar references. Yet the statement of Jesus recorded by St. Matthew cannot be denied. So, if St. John the Baptist is Elijah, how can he say he is NOT Elijah ?
The Baptist is not the historical person of Elijah for Elijah did not die but was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and his colleague the Prophet Elisha had asked in prayer for a double portion of the spirit of Elijah and God granted that prayer so that Elisha received the spirit of Elijah and rather like Elisha St. John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah. Indeed, in the first chapter of St. Luke`s Gospel the Angel revealed to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, that his son would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah – he was NOT the historical person of Elijah but came in his spirit and power!
So then, if not the Christ, if not the Prophet and if not Elijah then who was John the Baptist ? He answers that, `I am, as Isaiah prophesied: a voice that cries in the wilderness: Make a straight way for the Lord.` Centuries later St. Augustine of Hippo spoke of the connection between John the Baptist and Jesus and said that the Baptist was the voice, but that Jesus was and is The Word. Indeed Jesus is the Word of God made flesh in the womb of Mary. When we go back to that 40th chapter of Isaiah which was last Sunday`s Old Testament reading it becomes plain that the voice is the voice of God.
So then, John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah but He was the voice of the Lord God preparing the people of Israel to hear the Word made flesh – Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.
The American Paulite Priest, Fr. Altier, sums it up in this way: “God raised up Elijah and St. John the Baptist in very difficult times. Elijah and John continue to call us to repent and to rejoice. As it was in their days so it is in ours: God, Who brings good out of evil, is doing something great. Therefore, rejoice always, and rejoice heartily in the Lord!
We might remind ourselves too that Mary the Mother of Jesus and Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist were first cousins. John was just six months older than Jesus and they would have known each other as children and teenagers!