This Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, taken from the Latin word for "rejoice," which is the first word of the entrance antiphon at today's Mass. The readings reflect this theme of rejoicing.
The opening words of the Old Testament reading, from the prophet Isaiah, are: "The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song." These expressions of joy flow from the anticipation of Christmas and the knowledge that God, as Isaiah states, "comes to save you," a theme repeated in the responsorial psalm, which offers this simple prayer: "Lord, come and save us."
Intermingled with this theme of joy is an emphasis on waiting. This is evident in the reading from the epistle written by St. James: "Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. You, too, must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand."
Most of us will likely admit that the connection between joy and waiting is not always readily clear. It can be difficult to rejoice when the reason for such rejoicing is not obvious or fully present. "Yes," we might say, "I know that God has come to save me, but life right now is very difficult. How can I be joyful when my day-to-day existence makes no sense?"
One man who gave some remarkable answers to that difficult and honest question was Jesuit Father Alfred Delp (1907-45). Arrested under trumped up charges by the Nazis, Father Delp was tortured and imprisoned, then executed in February 1945. While in prison, he wrote a number of Advent reflections that were smuggled out and eventually published in the book "Advent of the Heart" (Ignatius, $14.95). Facing death at the hands of unjust men, Father Delp wrote, "The conditions for true joy have nothing to do with conditions of our exterior life, but consist of a man's interior frame of mind and competence, which make it possible now and again for him to sense, even in adverse external circumstances, what life is basically about." He explained that without the life of God filling our souls and lives, we die spiritually: "Separated from the Lord, the whole atrophies!"
In another reflection Father Delp stated that the voice calling out during Advent and directing mankind to God belonged to John the Baptist. He observed that John, in replying to the question, "Who are you?" (Jn 1:19), could have said that he was the Messiah. He could have given in to the temptation to fulfill his desire for joy and wholeness through his own efforts. He could have tired of waiting and given up on the promises of God. And, indeed, today's Gospel reading seems to suggest John had started to despair that Jesus actually was the Messiah. But as many of the Church Fathers pointed out, John sent his disciples to Jesus so they could taste the joy and hope he, although imprisoned and facing immanent death, already knew. St. Jerome, in his commentary on Matthew, wrote that John did not ask his question of Jesus "because he is ignorant, but to guide those who are ignorant and to say to them, 'Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'"
John the Baptist's faith was reaffirmed by the promise of the Messiah. As he waited in prison, that joyful promise made sense of the trial he suffered. In a reflection on Advent, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once wrote, "But when time itself is meaningful and each moment contains something valuable of its own, the joyful anticipation of something greater, something still to come, makes even more precious that which we already experience" ("The Blessing of Christmas," Ignatius, $14.95). That something greater has come. And he is coming again. Lord, come and save us. Alleluia!
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.