THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

 

Is 61, 1-2.10-11

1Thes 5,16-24

Jn 1,6-8.19-28

 

            The dominant theme of this Sunday’s liturgy is the coming of the Messiah who brings salvation. His coming is preceded by the prophetic word that, as announcement and consolation, prepares his way. In the first reading, the mission of a prophet who proclaims a jubilee year and announces a message of liberation and of peace for the poor is described: God has invested His people with justice and salvation. Paul, in the second reading, invites the community of Thessalonica to express with their life the joy that should characterize the disciples of Jesus. In the Gospel, just like last Sunday, “the voice” resounds again, which in the desert, on the other side of the Jordan, gave witness to Jesus: John the Baptist, the privileged witness of the Messiah. The testimony of John coincides with the faith of the Christian community: with Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah anointed with the Spirit by God, initiates for all humanity a year of grace and of joy announced by the prophets.

 

            The first reading (Is 61,1-2.10-11) describes “the consecration” of a person called to proclaim, on behalf of God, a message of salvation and of joy: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me” (v. 1). It is the consecrated person himself who describes the solemn anointing. It is not mentioned who it is. His name remains in the silence. Probably because he represents all those sent by God in history, all men an women of the Spirit that in every age and place keep the hope of humanity alive. He does not even call himself “prophet”. But he possesses the two fundamental qualities of a prophet: the consecration and the sending to announce the word. With the gift of the Spirit that penetrates him, he becomes “consecrated”, “anointed”: God has chosen him, He makes him capable and invests him with authority for the mission. The Spirit is the guarantee of the realization of the mission that he has received from God.

            This anointed of the Lord is called to be a herald and messenger of the word. His mission is to proclaim a word of joy and hope. He is called to announce the “Gospel” to the poor: “He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (v. 1). His word is effective. He announces that God has decided to intervene in history in favour of the least of this world, healing and liberating a dejected and suffering humanity. The prophet imagines himself as similar to the messengers who announced in ancient Israel the coming of the “year of jubilee” (Lev 25,10; Jer 34,8-9; Ez 46,17), when the debts were forgiven and the slaves were given freedom: “He has sent me to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord”. The expression “year of favour” translates the Hebrew shenat ratsón, which literally means: “acceptable year, favourable year”. That is to say, a time in which God manifests Himself particularly merciful and close, desiring to liberate and to save all the oppressed and suffering ones in the world.

            Verses 10-11 describe the response of the people before the message of the prophet. His listeners, stimulated by such a joyful announcement, react with a cry of praise and joy. The proclamation of the jubilee obtains its first effect: jubilation. These verses refer to the city of Jerusalem personified like a matron. The poor of the city, to whom the prophet addresses himself, have experienced his announcement as “joyful news”: God is the only consoler capable of transforming their painful existence. He has “clothed” them with a special garment, expression of his urgency and love: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in God is the joy of my soul, for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice” (v. 10). A robe and a mantle that nobody will now be able to take away. A vegetal metaphor follows this image of the garments: the city is described as a luxuriant garden where justice and freedom have flowered, a delightful orchard where songs of joy and praise in honor of the Lord can be heard by all the peoples (v. 11).

 

            The second reading (1Thes 5,16-24) constitutes the concluding exhortation of Paul in the first letter to the Thessalonians. Again the apostle proclaims the coming of Jesus Christ and his conviction of faith in the fidelity of God: “May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness. May he preserve you whole and entire, spirit, soul and body, irreproachable at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 23). The coherence and radicality of life of the Christian disciple is not an unrealisable dream. God Himself is committed to this plan. It is God, with His fidelity and love, who will make possible the fullness of man. To the believer corresponds the openness to the action of God (vv. 17-19: “pray constantly”, “for all things give thanks”, “do not stifle the Spirit”) and the intelligent search for the authentic values that lead to sanctity (vv. 20-22: “do not despise prophecies”, “test everything; retain what is good”, “avoid any semblance of evil”).

 

            The Gospel (Jn 1,6-8.19-28) is centred today on the figure of John the Baptist, witness and prophet of the Messiah who is about to come.

            Verses 6-8, taken from the prologue of the Gospel of John, present the Baptist as a “witness to testify to the light, so that through him all men might believe” (v. 7). The Baptist is a witness, one who declares in favour of the other. The Gospel of John conceives the work of Jesus as a grand judicial process in which light and shadows, the world and Christ, stand in confrontation. Jesus Himself affirmed of His mission: “It is for judgment that I have come into this world, so that those without sight may see and those with sight may become blind” (Jn 9,39). A little before His passion begins, He will say: “Now has judgment come upon this world” (Jn 12,31). A judgment-confrontation that demands from each man and woman a radical and irreversible decision.

            The first witness in favour of Christ is precisely John. He is a voice, a guide who leads to Christ. He is the first witness in this judgment. The Scriptures will also give witness of Jesus (Jn 5,39), the works that He Himself realizes (Jn 10,38-39) and above all the Father (Jn 5,31-38; 8,18). But John is the first who teaches humanity the definitive way, the perfect light that illumines all men and women, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the baptism in the Spirit and not just with water.

            John shows publicly to all who is the true “spouse” of humanity, to whom he is not worthy to untie his sandal straps. To untie the sandals, in effect, was a public gesture through which a person acquires juridical rights of the other, concretely in the case of levirate when a close relative assumes the rights of the spouse (cf. Dt 25,5-9; Ru 4). When John says that he is not worthy of untying the straps of the sandals of Jesus, he is not referring to a simple gesture of humility, but to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah-Spouse of humanity, the only one in whom all men and women find salvation and fullness of life. John cannot replace Him. Even more, he should decrease so that He may increase. The last witness of the Baptist is precisely this: “It is the groom who has the bride. The groom’s best man waits there listening for him and is overjoyed to hear his voice. That is my joy and it is complete. He must increase, while I must decrease” (Jn 3,29-30).

            On the eve of Christmas the prophetic witness of the Baptist resounds again with strength. His “voice” proclaims the coming of God in Jesus Christ. Advent is the propitious moment to give a place to the prophetic word. It is a time that invites us to renew our adherence of faith in the saving Messiah and to let His Spirit mould our existence according to the demands of the Kingdom of God. We need the prophetic word. A word that will make us go out from our passivity and incoherence and to push us on to the active solidarity in favour of “the poor”, the “broken-hearted”, the “captives”. A prophetic word that will announce and realize the absolute newness of the Messiah in our hearts and in our society. A word that will help us open ourselves with joy and trust in God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life” (Jn 3,16).