Third Sunday of Advent. "Gaudete Sunday"

John the Baptist: witness of light and joy

Commentary on the Gospel of Sunday, December 18, 2023. Third Sunday of Advent. “Gaudete Sunday”

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Mons. Francesco Follo

(ZENIT News / Vatican City, 12.14.2023).- Commentary on the Gospel of Sunday, December 18, 2023. Third Sunday of Advent. 

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.

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.

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