Daily meditation on the Gospel

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John the Baptist: Witness of Light and Joy

Third Sunday of Advent “Gaudete Sunday” – Year B – December 17th, 2017

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Roman Rite
Third Sunday of Advent “Gaudete Sunday” – Year B – December 17th, 2017
Is 61.1-2A.10-11; Ps Lk1:46-48; 1 Thes 5: 16-24; Jn 1,6-8.19-28
Ambrosian Rite
Is 62.10-63.3b; Ps 72; Phil 4,4-9; Lk 1: 26-38a
Sunday of the Incarnation or of the Divine Motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  1) Witness of the light.
Advent is a time of waiting, hope and preparation for the visit of the Lord. That is why today the liturgy of the Church makes us ask for the grace of this visit, which brings us light and dissolves darkness. Darkness scares the heart, but light gives joy. To welcome the visit of the light that is Christ, on this third Sunday of Advent the Church offers us the figure of John the Baptist. He is not the Light, but he is his witness.
Today’s Gospel presents many elements that characterize the testimony of the Baptist. I’d like to underline some of them.
First of all, John is fully aware that his whole life is totally related to Christ. Faced with those who questioned him about his identity, John insists in saying who he is not: he is not the light, he is “a lamp that burns and shines” (Jn 5:35). He is not the bridegroom, he is “the friend of the bridegroom” (Jn 3:29). He is not the Truth, he is the witness of the truth. He is not the Word, he is the voice. Certainly, a life that seems to be founded on a denial leaves us amazed and perplexed, but it is a denial necessary to make room for Jesus.
To the question “Who is this man, who is John the Baptist?” his answer is of a surprising humility. He is not the Messiah, he is not the light. He is not Elijah back on earth, nor the great expected prophet. He is the precursor, a simple witness totally subordinate and minor in relation to the One he is announcing; a voice in the desert. Also today, in the spiritual desert of this secularized world, we need voices that simply announce to us: “God is there, always near even if he seems absent”.
In this paradoxical negative definition of his identity and in this realistic attitude of humility, John finds himself: he is a voice in the desert and a witness of light. This touches us in the heart because, in this world with much darkness and many obscurities we are all called to be witnesses of light.
Advent invites us to this mission: to be witnesses that the light is there and to bring it into our time and into the world that proclaims the absence of God.
It must be kept in mind, however, that we can only be witnesses if we bring light into ourselves, and if we are not only sure that the light is there but that we have seen even a small light. This light reaches the eyes of the heart in the Church, in the Word of God, in the celebration of the Sacraments, in the Sacrament of Confession with the forgiveness we receive, and in the celebration of Mass where the Lord gives himself in our hands and hearts. In this way, we become also witnesses of charity.
Each of us is “a man sent by God”, a small prophet sent among his own and in the world. If our heart, like a lamp, welcomes the light of Christ and looks at reality in the light of Christ and in the light that is Christ, we will be witnesses not so much of the commands or of the punishments but of the merciful judgment of God and of the light of the Redeemer. He binds the wounds of the wounded hearts and goes in search of all the prisoners to get them out of the darkness of a heart imprisoned by sin, and to put them back in the sun of his truth and love.
2) Witnesses of joy.
The third Sunday of Advent is called Sunday “of joy”1 and reminds us that, even in the midst of many doubts and difficulties, joy exists because God exists, has come to visit us and comes to be with us always.
The joy of an encounter that is renewed with the celebration of Christmas is not reducible to an emotion.
The joy of the gospel (as Pope Francis recalls in Evangelii Gaudium) is not a fragile and short smile that appears on the face for a few moments and then fades away. It is not even the sentimental euphoria that is renewed every year during the Christmas holidays but that does not change life.
The joy of the nascent Christ is the one announced by Isaiah and Paul (first and second reading), who become echoes to announce the Joy similar to the simple joy of the newly married at the wedding party, or to the one of the earth that receives the seed to make it sprout. A joy that looks forward to what will be, not to what has already happened. A joy that does not only contemplate the Child in the humble cave of Bethlehem, but the One who will come again in glory and will fill our life with eternity.
For this reason, we need the example of John the Baptist, or, as defined by the fourth evangelist, of the “Witness”. This Witness – who rejoices hearing the voice of the Bridegroom – is the one who precedes in order to always look further ahead. With his word and his life, John looks ahead and invites us to look forward to be like him witnesses of the truth, the charity and joy of Christ.
Joy implies love. Rightly, we have always seen a link between love and happiness: those who marry think that the day of the wedding is the most beautiful day of their life. Indeed, also in human love man finds his completeness and, in his natural perfection, he finds precisely the fulfillment of his desires and the response of nature to his needs, not only of the soul but also of the body. Everything finds its fulfillment in this spousal union that is nothing but the fruit of love. Love and joy seem to get along. Joy is the fruit of love, which is the gift by oneself to the other. Those who are not free from selfishness do not possess true and lasting joy.
If we want to possess joy, we must therefore free us from ourselves. Here is the first experience. We must overcome every selfishness that withdraws us into ourselves and makes all things converge to us.
If joy involves love, it demands victory over selfishness and implies forgetfulness of oneself. No one who withdraws in himself can possess true joy. It is in the pure gift of self that the soul finds joy. However, the gift of self implies sacrifice. It is therefore not true that the sacrifice is contrary to joy.
It is not true that death to oneself is really the end of joy: indeed, it is the door that opens to infinite bliss and the fullness of peace because it is also the door of love.
Death to oneself, a source of joy, is witnessed in a special way by the consecrated Virgins. Pope Francis teaches: “ That the old saying will always be true: ”Where there are religious, there is joy”. These women testify that God is able to fill their hearts and make them happy, without having to look for happiness elsewhere.” We can apply to the consecrated life the words of Benedict XVI which I cited in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but by attraction” (No. 14). The consecrated life will not flourish as a result of brilliant vocation programs, but because the young people we meet find us attractive, because they see us as men and women who are happy! Similarly, the apostolic effectiveness of consecrated life does not depend on the efficiency of its methods. It depends on the eloquence of your lives, lives which radiate the joy and beauty of living the Gospel and following Christ to the full.”(Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter to all consecrated people on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life, November 21th, 2014).
This third Sunday of Advent reminds us that the true center is Christ. The consecrated virgins bear witness to how much Christ loved above all things is a source of joy.
  A joy given, ready, immense, at heart’s reach. A joy to be accepted, to be invaded and transformed by so to become new.
It will be the opportunity to put in front of God all our life, to put again God before all our life with love, with trust, and with the awareness that just when we are in the darkness of sin, crisis, and discouragement, there is someone who makes us fix our heart in the morning of the rising light that brings joy.
Patristic reading
Saint John Chrysostom  (344/354 – 407)
Homily XVI on
Jn 1,19

“And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?”
[1.] A Dreadful thing is envy, beloved, a dreadful thing and a pernicious, to the enviers, not to the envied. For it harms and wastes them first, like some mortal venom deeply seated in their souls; and if by chance it injure its objects, the harm it does is small and trifling, and such as brings greater gain than loss. Indeed not in the case of envy only, but in every other, it is not he that has suffered, but he that has done the wrong, who receives injury. For had not this been so, Paul would not have enjoined the disciples rather to endure wrong than to inflict it, when he says, “Why do ye not rather take wrong? Why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?” (1Co 6,7). Well he knew, that destruction ever follows, not the injured party, but the injuring. All this I have said, by reason of the envy of the Jews. Because those who had flocked from the cities to John, and had condemned their own sins, and caused themselves to be baptized, repenting as it were after Baptism, send to ask him, “Who art thou?” Of a truth they were the offspring of vipers, serpents, and even worse if possible than this. O evil and adulterous and perverse generation, after having been baptized, do ye then become vainly curious, and question about the Baptist? What folly can be greater than this of yours? How was it that ye came forth? that ye confessed your sins, that ye ran to the Baptist? How was it that you asked him what you must do? when in all this you were acting unreasonably, since you knew not the principle and purpose of his coming. Yet of this the blessed Jn said nothing, nor does he charge or reproach them with it, but answers them with all gentleness.

It is worth while to learn why he did thus. It was, that their wickedness might be manifest and plain to all men. Often did Jn testify of Christ to the Jews, and when he baptized them he continually made mention of Him to his company, and said, “I indeed baptize you with water, but there cometh One after me who is mightier than I; He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” (Mt 3,11). With regard to him they were affected by a human feeling; for, tremblingly attentive1 to the opinion of the world, and looking to “the outward appearance” (2Co 10,7), they deemed it an unworthy thing that he should be subject to Christ. Since there were many things that pointed out Jn for an illustrious person. In the first place, his distinguished and noble descent; for he was the son of a chief priest. Then his conversation, his austere mode of life, his contempt of all human things; for despising dress and table, and house and food itself, he had passed his former time in the desert. In the case of Christ all was the contrary of this. His family was mean, (as they often objected to Him, saying, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren James and Joses?”) (Mt 13,55); and that which was supposed to be His country was held in such evil repute, that even Nathanael said, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (c. 1,46). His mode of living was ordinary, and His garments not better than those of the many. For He was not girt with a leathern girdle, nor was His raiment of hair, nor did He eat honey and locusts. But He fared like all others, and was present at the feasts of wicked men and publicans, that He might draw them to Him. Which thing the Jews not understanding reproached Him with, as He also saith Himself, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.” (Mt 11,19). When then John continually sent them from himself to Jesus, who seemed to them a meaner person, being ashamed and vexed at this, and wishing rather to have him for their teacher, they did not dare to say so plainly, but send to him, thinking by their flattery to induce him to confess that he was the Christ. They do not therefore send to him mean men, as in the case of Christ, for when they wished to lay hold on Him, they sent servants, and then Herodians, and the like, but in this instance, “priests and Levites,” and not merely “priests,” but those “from Jerusalem,” that is, the more honorable; for the Evangelist did not notice this without a cause. And they send to ask, “Who art thou?” Yet the manner of his birth was well known to all, so that all said, “What manner of child shall this be?” (Lc 1,66); and the report had gone forth into all the hill country. And afterwards when he came to Jordan, all the cities were set on the wing, and came to him from Jerusalem, and from all Judaea, to be baptized. Why then do they2 now ask? Not because they did not know him, (how could that be, when he had been made manifest in so many ways?) but because they wished to bring him to do that which I have mentioned.
[2.] Hear then how this blessed person answered to the intention with which they asked the question, not to the question itself. When they said, “Who art thou?” he did not at once give them what would have been the direct answer, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” But what did he? He removed the suspicion they had formed; for, saith the Evangelist, being asked, “Who art thou?”

Jn 1,20. “He confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.”

Observe the wisdom of the Evangelist. He mentions this for the third time, to set forth the excellency of the Baptist, and their wickedness and folly. And Lc also says, that when the multitudes supposed him to be the Christ, he again removes their suspicion.3 This is the part of an honest servant, not only not to take to himself his master’s honor, but also to reject it4 when given to him by the many. But the multitudes arrived at this supposition from simplicity and ignorance; these questioned him from an ill intention, which I have mentioned, expecting, as I said, to draw him over to their purpose by their flattery. Had they not expected this, they would not have proceeded immediately to another question, but would have been angry with him for having given them an answer foreign to their enquiry, and would have said, “Why, did we suppose that? did we come to ask thee that?” But now as taken and detected in the fact, they proceed to another question, and say,

Jn 1,21. “What then? art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not.”
For they expected that Elias also would come, as Christ declares; for when His disciples enquired, “How then do the scribes say that Elias must first come?” (Mt 17,10) He replied, “Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.” Then they ask, “Art thou that prophet? and he answered, No.” (Mt 17,10). Yet surely he was a prophet. Wherefore then doth he deny it? Because again he looks to the intention of his questioners. For they expected that some especial prophet should come, because Moses said, “The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet of thy brethren like unto me, unto Him shall ye harken.” (Dt 18,15). Now this was Christ. Wherefore they do not say, “Art thou a prophet?” meaning thereby one of the ordinary prophets; but the expression, “Art thou the prophet?” with the addition of the article, means, “Art thou that Prophet who was foretold by Moses?” and therefore he denied not that he was a prophet, but that he was “that Prophet.”

Jn 1,22. “Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?”
Observe them pressing him more vehemently, urging him, repeating their questions, and not desisting; while he first kindly removes false opinions concerning himself, and then sets before them one which is true. For, saith he,
Jn 1,23. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.”

When he had spoken some high and lofty words concerning Christ, as if (replying) to their opinion, he immediately betook himself to the Prophet to draw from thence confirmation of his assertion.
Jn 1,24-25. “And [saith the Evangelist] they who were sent were of the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, neither Elias, neither that Prophet?”
Seest thou not without reason I said that they wished to bring him to this? and the reason why they did not at first say so was, lest they should be detected by all men. And then when he said, “I am not the Christ,” they, being desirous to conceal what they were plotting5 within, go on to “Elias,” and “that Prophet.” But when he said that he was not one of these either, after that, in their perplexity, they cast aside the mask, and without any disguise show clearly their treacherous intention, saying, “Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ?” And then again, wishing to throw some obscurity over the thing,6 they add the others also, “Elias,” and “that Prophet.” For when they were not able to trip a him by their flattery, they thought that by an accusation they could compel him7 to say the thing that was not.

What folly, what insolence, what ill-timed officiousness! Ye were sent to learn who and whence he might be, not to8 lay down laws for him also. This too was the conduct of men who would compel him to confess himself to be the Christ. Still not even now is he angry, nor does he, as might have been expected, say to them anything of this sort, “Do you give orders and make laws for me?” but again shows great gentleness towards them.
Jn 1,26-27. “I,” saith he, “baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.”
1 This marks the passage from the first, mainly austere and penitential, part of Advent to the second part dominated by the expectation of the near salvation. The title comes from the words “rejoice” (gaudete) that can be heard at the beginning of Mass: “Always rejoice in the Lord, I repeat it, rejoice, the Lord is near” (Philippians 4, 4-5). But the theme of joy also pervades the rest of the liturgy of the word. In the first reading we hear the cry of the prophet: “I fully rejoice in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God”. The Responsorial Psalm is the Magnificat of Mary, intercalated by the refrain: “My soul rejoices in my God”. Finally, the second reading begins with the words of Paul: “Brothers, be always happy”.

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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