The third Sunday of Advent used to be called Gaudete (be joyful) Sunday. It provided a mid-term break within a period of austerity or penance in preparation for Christmas. Advent is no longer celebrated as a penitential period, but as a reflective time of expectation and hope. The invitation to rejoice nonetheless remains part of the Advent liturgy. It is certainly present in the first reading from Third Isaiah: the desert shall rejoice and bloom… and rejoice with joy and singing… the tongue of the speechless sing for joy… And the ransomed of our God shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isaiah 35:1,10).
Today’s gospel passage is full of questions. First John sends his disciples to Jesus with a question. Jesus responds by directing them to the evidence. He adds a comment about those who take no offence at him: they are blessed. He then turns to the crowds with a series of rhetorical questions about their motivation for going out to John in the desert. His words to the crowds conclude with an identification of John as God’s prophet and messenger, his own precursor. He pays an extraordinary tribute to John, but leaves the reader puzzling about the final statement: the least in the kingdom is greater than John.
John’s imprisonment is a sobering reminder of what can happen to those who are faithful to their mission. As the Matthean Jesus will attest, John is no reed shaken by the wind. This could well be a subtle reference to Herod Antipas’ choice of the reed as a symbol on the coins commemorating the founding of Tiberias. Herod has arrested and imprisoned John and later will have him put to death on specious grounds. John is not fickle like Herod, but steadfast and strong.
May we remain steadfast and strong in our Advent journey, walking in God’s light, sharing with one another and praying for the arrival of the Christ Child.
with love and prayers Revd Sara