There is one among you whom you do not recognize
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 [I rejoice heartily in the Lord.]
Luke 1:46-50,53-54 [My soul rejoices in my God
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 [May you, entirely, spirit, soul and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.]
John 1:6-8, 19-28 [There is one among you whom you do not recognize.]
The rubrics of today introduce a new colour into the traditionally four liturgical colours Red, violet, white and green. We are now admonished to put on violet or rose. Although today is referred to as Gaudete Sunday, we do not say the Gloria. In our reflections of last year, we explained what Gaudete means: rejoicing. What it is we were being invited to rejoice over.
The prayer text of today presupposes that we are waiting for the feast of the Nativity faithfully. Indeed, it asks God, who sees how we await in this faithful manner, to ensure that we merit the rewards of such faithful waiting, namely the joy of so great a salvation, and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.
So many things are implied here: the nature of God invoked is that of one who long suffers, who every day of our lives keeps a watchful eye on us, a vigilant God, who sets the truest example of what constancy and vigilance is all about. The nativity will become the highest form of divine participation and presence in the everyday affairs of the creatures He has created. Our manner of waiting is what the prayer highlights. We are expected to wait for Christ’s coming faithfully. The one who faithfully awaits is none else than him who is constant in prayer, vigilant and standing erect always, having his head high. It is about a way of living characterized by constancy. We have been told to expect the coming of the Lord in this spirit of attentiveness. Now, those who are this attentive are now asking that the Lord may enable them to enjoy the fruits of such a committed living. This fruit is none else than the gift of salvation. The salvation is qualified as “so great”. This sets already the bedrock for contrasting anything else with the quality of liberation Jesus brings. John the Baptist will take the lead in signaling the depth of such greatness when he compares the kind of baptism he offers with that of Jesus Christ. As a Sunday of rejoicing, the prayer asks God to enable us celebrate this gift in solemn liturgy and joy. To celebrate the gift of the Nativity, the gift of our salvation, the gift of one who brings a salvation greater than we can ask for or even imagine, we need Divine grace and guidance.
The first reading opens with a passage Jesus will allude to when He makes His first appearance in the Synagogue of Nazareth. It is one that reveals the identity of the Messiah and what He brings as He comes. Hearing about this must make us rejoice. The promise of something wonderful which we have been longing for, which we know is the source of our joy but which we know we have never seen always fills our hearts, our minds with joyful wonder. Whenever we speak of it, we do so with joy, with enthusiasm, especially when we are terribly sure it is going to come. However, the prophet gives us clues regarding the joyful images: the anointed one, the Messiah is bearer of good tidings for the poor. He comes to bind up the broken-hearted, liberating those held bound by the evil one, setting prisoners free, declaring divine amnesty, for it is time to experience the favour of the Lord. The people of God then rejoice in their God because it is as it were, a moment when He puts on them a garment of salvation, a cloak of integrity. It is the kind of joy that entertains those who are not just in love, but who are celebrating their life-long commitment in the sacrament of marriage, adorned in finest jewels and wearing a wreath. (probably, this passage is inspirational in the practice of adorning the Church, bride of Christ with the Christmas wreath). The coming messiah in His Lordship, will bring with Him fertility not so much to the earth, but to the peoples that are His, to the nations. That which will grow out of this conjugal love will be integrity and praise: integrity because praise short of integrity will be nothing but lips service. With integrity, the praise that the nations will lift up in honour of the Lord, the bridegroom, will be honest, truthful, reliable and upright. Since this is what the coming of the Lord will lead us too, then, this indeed, will be our salvation. We have every reason to await the Lord in joy.
The responsorial psalm actually shows the chosen one of God, the truest bride of God, Mary, lifting up to God her song of praise with integrity. The Church calls us to make this hymn ours as we celebrate. My soul exalts in the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. The hymn acknowledges exactly what the prophecy of Isaiah foretold that the messiah will accomplish for the poor, the lowly, carefully pointing out how this affects the haughty, those who now think they are powerful and have no need of God. It is a hymn to the Lord who fills the hungry with good things, fulfilling His promise to Israel His servant. To benefit from this joyous tidings, we must do all to be true servants of the Lord, putting on integrity as we too sing these words of praise.
St. Paul takes up from here, exhorting us, servants of the Lord, people the Lord has chosen, those waiting for the messiah, to put on certain attitudes he deems necessary if we must remain blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The servant who praises with integrity is one called to be constantly happy, unceasing in prayer and full of thanksgiving to God for all things. Such a servant is doing what the Lord expects of Him, the Will of the Father in Christ Jesus. The Lord always makes His Spirit to entertain us always so that we can put on such dispositions. Paul asks that we may never try to suppress the Spirit or treat the gift of prophecy with contempt. The call to rejoice and be happy at all times must be premeditated always, and not a spontaneous, happy-go-lucky attitude. It demands sanctity, perfect holiness, which is at once moral and spiritual; making us hold on to what is good and avoiding evil. But, Paul realizes that this is not a virtue man can attain all by himself. He then implores God to grant us the perfection and sanctity it takes to stay blameless in spirit, soul and body, a holistic, integral purgation that saves us and makes us worthy to encounter the coming Son. Paul reminds us all these are fruits of divine initiative and assures us that if we engage in this path, we shall experience divine sustenance and accompaniment. It is likely from ideas like these that the opening prayer implores God to ensure that we merit the rewards of waiting for the Nativity.
Reading through the exhortation of Paul to the Thessalonians, one cannot help but pondering over who this eternal Son who is to come is. It rings a note of seriousness and provokes everyone to search from the within. The need to prepare for this coming is what the Gospel is all about. While it seems to be a Gospel that is meant to reveal the true identity of John, it will turn out to be a Gospel in which John himself will insist that it is not all about him, but about someone else, whose coming we need to prepare for more seriously.
In a very strong manner John’s person and mission is made to sharply contrast that of Christ. Both, sent by God, John comes as witness to speak for the one superior to him, whom the evangelist refers to as ‘the light’. The witnessing is meant to dispose everyone to have faith through Jesus Christ. John, the Baptist, the forerunner, the harbinger, the precursor seems to be in focus. His identity is questioned in order that he is not mistaken for the light. He shuns cheap popularity, of faking that the power emanating from his works and affecting people’s lives was of his own making. He gives the honour to the rightful person, the source of his strength and the purpose of all that he does. He is asked “Who are you?” He immediately distances himself from the Christ, “I am not the Christ.” He denies being Elijah. He would not even consider himself a prophet. He is only a voice crying in the wilderness. Those who came questioning Him were rather sent, and the questions were not asked to bring them to have faith in him as much. The Pharisees demanded an answer. John’s reply instead was a universal call to conversion. John, instead of identifying himself, made it clear that it is not so much about him, it is about the one whose coming he is announcing. Knowledge of Christ is what John tilts attention to. John knows Him. He is aware, that the Christ is already in the midst of the people of God. He identifies himself only in relation to Christ. John is a nonentity were it not for the mission he bears connected to the anointed one. This is how we too must see ourselves. The definition of our entire being and existence must be established only in relation to Christ, for without Him, our salvation will never be guaranteed.
When those interrogating him put a further question “Why are you baptising if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?” John’s reply, “I baptise with water; but there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap” makes the point. It is as if John makes it clear: the issue is not my personality and what I do, the issue is about our ability to recognize in our midst the one who is the bearer of our salvation. Go back and tell those Pharisees, it is time to look for the one who is greater than I am. He is in your midst. We know that the distinguishing mark of the baptism of the messiah is that of the Holy Spirit and Fire. John baptizes with water. It is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. We do not see Jesus actually carry out this baptism with sacramental signs as John carried His out. Today, the baptism we carry out is a combination of John’s and of Jesus. We use water, and at the same time, we invoke the name of the Trinity. John immersed. We too at times immerse, we sprinkle or pour, accompanied by the words Christ commanded his disciples to use… “Baptize them in the name of the Father…” The issue here does not seem to be the right way of baptizing, but knowing who Christ is, and what He wants of us. Salvation therefore, comes from being baptized not merely with the baptism of John, but with that as a preparation and with the baptism of Christ. Unless a man is born again of water and the Spirit, says Jesus… But he will also say salvation comes from eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Would this be a synonym to baptism? Then He tells the rich young man that to inherit eternal life one must avoid sin. But the avoidance of sin is not all, it entails selling all and becoming a disciple, following after Christ. Perhaps then the only way we can enjoy the merits of Christmas is to set ourselves to truly acquire knowledge of Christ. Knowing Christ implies a lot. It automatically provokes discipleship. Knowledge of Him will open us to see that it is not knowledge enough when we do not love Him, serve Him in a constant manner, all the days of our lives. This is what it takes to be saved, not the recitation of simple formula: today, I have accepted God as my personal Lord and Saviour. This is not all what it takes to be saved. It is an encounter, a relationship initiated by God producing in us a response of perfect sanctity attainted through a life of gradual and on-going conversion, of purgation, of self-purification, of letting the fire burn us up, of letting the Spirit fill all our days.
The Lord who sees these efforts we are making to be converted will no doubt ensure that His Son will meet us while we are ready. That is why it makes sense for us to end again with the opening prayer: O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation, and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.