17th December 3rd Advent ‘Gaudete Sunday’
Readings: Is. 61. 1-4, 8-end; 1 Thess. 5. 16-24; John 1. 6-8, 19-28
Theme: Hope and Joyful Restoration
There is something very joyful each Advent as our journey to Bethlehem is accompanied by the beautiful words of Isaiah: “For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” This passage from Isaiah is written at the end of the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon. It is written around 538 BC at a time when the Israelites were looking back on their time of exile and looking forwards to the joyful restoring of Jerusalem to its former glory. Israel will be redeemed by the coming of the long awaited messianic ruler. It is a time full of joy, hope and promise as the people await the messiah; the one who will redeem Israel.
The words that we have at the start of the Isaiah reading for today are the same words that Jesus uses in the gospel of Luke (4. 16-21) to announce the arrival of the messianic era which he represents: “The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind-up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from the darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” This is the jubilee of jubilees. The Jubilee Year in the life of the Israelites is the time when the land was returned to the Lord to be redistributed again so that all would gain from it equally and bountifully.
Our gospel today introduces us to the one who bears witness to these forthcoming events in the person of John the Baptist. He is the witness to the light which is coming into the world to illuminate our darkness and to break the yoke of slavery to sin and division in which we have fallen. John is clearly a threat to the religious establishment at the time. The priests and the Levites are eager to know whether John is the messiah. He declares he is not, but rather the one who fulfills the prophetic role of announcing the coming of the messiah, who is already amongst them though living the hidden life prior to his public ministry. The baptism that John offers is only with water. The one who is to come, the messiah Jesus, will baptize with the Holy Spirit. In other words, he will renew the face of the earth by the power of God which will be manifest in the coming of the Holy Spirit.
This theme of hope and a coming joyful restoration is one which is at the heart of this Advent season. Hope, here, should not be understood as simply an optimism about life. Optimism and pessimism are not evangelical virtues. They are attitudes or dispositions that we have which often depend upon our temperament. Some see the glass half full and others see it half empty. Hope, in the evangelical sense, is quite a different reality than optimism. It is not a human disposition, but rather a gift of the Holy Spirit which enables us to trust in the Lord regardless of whether good or bad things happen to us. In this life good and bad things do happen to us. Hope, in the Christian sense, is not like a talisman that we wear around our necks in order to insulate us from the cold winds of life. No, hope is the Christian virtue of believing that God is working out God’s plans through history and will bring them to His ultimate fulfillment. In other words, we should hold on to hope as we journey through the roller coaster of life with its ups and downs, because the destination of lives is in the hands of God. Knowing that our journey’s end is destined by God enables us to accept whatever life throws up for us. We should never think because things in life go wrong for us that this is a deviation from God’s plan. Were Jesus to have thought that he would have never have accepted to enter into his passion and death for us. The gift of hope enables us to believe that in the end all will be well. It does not tell us to believe that the journey of life will be smooth.
The second theme of the coming joyful restoration of Israel is also one which should fill us with hope. This theme speaks of God’s action in history to restore true justice to the nations. The “Year of the Lord’s Favour”, this Jubilee year, is a powerful symbol of this joyful restoration. The tradition of a year of restoration is first announced in the Book of Leviticus. It was proclaimed on the Day of Atonement with a blast of the ram’s horn and announced that all debts would be cancelled and all the ancestral land would be returned to the Lord to be re-distributed again. At this time of Jubilee, those who had been enslaved due to debt were to be returned to their families and any land that had been sold due to debts was to be returned to its original owner. In effect, this was a resetting of the economy so that those Israelites who through misfortune had fallen into poverty could be restored to their former well-being. Prior to this Year of Jubilee, the nearest male relative of each family was responsible for settling the debts of slavery and of land in as far as that was possible. For Isaiah this role of the male relative would become the sole purpose of the messiah. The messiah was to be the redeemer of the debts of the people. This will characterize God’s salvific work in the New Covenant as the redeemer of God’s people who had become impoverished.
So, as we await the coming of our redeemer in this Advent season, we are reminded that this coming is an advent of joyful restoration. It is a redeeming of all our debts and of a fulfilment of all our hopes. Let us rejoice on this Gaudete Sunday of Advent and proclaim: Come Lord Jesus, Maranatha. Amen.