Opening the Word: The one who is to come

During Advent, we are called to awaken, to repent and to rejoice. The latter is especially emphasized on this third Sunday of Advent, which is Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin word for “rejoice”), and the readings refer to joy, exultation, glory and gladness. Each of these important actions are a response to what is at the heart of Advent.

The prophet Isaiah looked toward a time when the desert and parched land would be filled with new life and echo with the sounds of “joyful song.” In other words, this would be a time of spiritual renewal and blossoming, the result of God’s coming to save, to heal and to restore. God, proclaimed Isaiah, “comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.” The arrival of the Lord can seem so far away, especially amid the dust and disease of this tiring life. “The desert is the world that God has not yet visited,” wrote Father Hans Urs von Balthasar about this passage, “but now he is on his way. Blind, deaf, lame, and mute is the man whom God has not yet visited, yet now his senses open wide and his limbs loosen up.”

Ransomed from the disease of sin and healed of physical illnesses, those who faithfully await the coming of God will eventually be “crowned with everlasting joy ...”

The close connection between patience and joy are evident in the reading from James, written to Christians dispersed throughout the known world, many of them suffering for their faith in Christ.

“Be patient brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord,” he exhorts.

Being focused on eternal joy while coping with temporal tests and trials requires a firm heart. James provided a practical help for persecuted Christians: “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” This directly echoed the words spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:12; see Acts 7:52; Heb 11:32-38).

There is one prophet especially who has pride of place during Advent. But did St. John the Baptist become impatient and even frustrated while imprisoned? Today’s Gospel seems to indicate so, for John sent some of his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come?” However, it makes more sense that John, who never shied away from his strong message of repentance, did this for the benefit of others. “John asks this not because he is ignorant,” St. Jerome said, “but to guide others who are ignorant and say to them, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!’” After all, John had also told his disciples that the “best man” — that is, himself — listens for the bridegroom — Christ — and “rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete.” There, again, is that word: joy!

John’s disciples were committed to him, but they needed to understand that he was the messenger, not the Messiah. By sending them to Jesus, he was shaking them awake, giving them the opportunity to see they did not need to look “for another.” Instead, they needed to comprehend how God had truly come, fulfilling the words of the prophets by healing the blind, deaf and leprous. Jesus was the one who was to come.

He is coming again; he comes to save us. Have patience — and rejoice!

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.