The Gospel reading feels like pulling the string of a how without letting the arrow fly. John is not the light; but has come to testify concerning the light about to dawn. He is not the expected Messiah. Nor is he really Elijah come again, though he dresses and acts like that hoped- for herald of the messianic times. Nor is he the Prophet-like-Moses mentioned in Deuteronomy (Jesus will fill and then transcend that role). As for his baptism, it is just a water baptism; there is one coming after him that he is not even worthy to serve as a slave, and that one … but the other shoe does not drop in this reading.
The tension of the taut bowstring is not released. The reading is wonderfully selected here to focus our attention on the coming that is yet to be celebrated in a week and a half. It is just enough to evoke the joy of anticipation enkindled by the first two readings.
The First Reading is a gathering of four verses from a passage in the scroll of Isaiah that had to have been a favorite of Jesus. It is, Luke will tell us, the passage Jesus opened to when he stood up in his hometown synagogue to deliver his one-line inaugural address there: “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). As in the past two Sundays of Advent, we are hearing a prophet speaking to a depressed people returned from Exile and looking for a full restoration.
In the full sweep of the oracle (First Reading: 61:1-62:9), full restoration is promised—release of captives, joy replacing mourning, cities rebuilt, the wealth of nations pouring in, ample harvest and vintage—all the right relations packed into the meaning of biblical justice. And that condition of full shalom (peace, in the sense of fullness of life) is not a human accomplishment. It is a deed of God: “So will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.”
“Gaudete Sunday” is the name we used to give this Third Sunday of Advent. The name derives from the Latin version of the first sentence of the reading from St. Paul, where he begins to wind up his first letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, a passage that instructs us on the essence of Christian joy. It is worthwhile to unpack his words slowly.
Rejoice always. That's not some vapid exhortation like "Cheer up!" Joy is really something accessible to the Christian who takes the measures Paul is just about to name, beginning with “pray without ceasing.” While the Russian tradition of the steadily repeated Jesus Prayer is a literal expression of that mandate, most of us hear that imperative as a call to be ready to turn familiarly to God in any situation—“to find God in all things.”
In all circumstances give thanks. The Greek verb here (eucharisteite) is used in the Bible only to refer to giving thanks to God—which makes this imperative just another way of urging us to pray always, discerning the giver behind all life's gifts, even finding something to be grateful for in difficult circumstances, for, as Paul continues, this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecy. In the context of this particular letter, which alludes in an earlier passage to what Paul will later call the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit in their lives, these imperatives urge them to be open to the working of the Spirit in their community—but not naively, for they are also told: Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.
May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Second Reading)
That's the Christian way to talk about fulfillment. The human person in all dimensions—where “spirit” identifies the person as creature, “soul” to the person as living being, and “body” as related to the earth and society—becomes whole in those dimensions through the loving work of God. And the final line of the reading carries the fullest possible assurance: The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. Joining the Baptist and Isaiah, Paul calls us, along with his beloved Thessalonians, away from our culture's empty promises of joy to turn to the real source of fulfillment, “the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9).The messages on our television screens imply that joy comes with the numbing of pain and the getting of goods. Our ordinary human experience tells us, rather, that joy comes when we are connected in good ways with others and when we have something to look forward to. Revelation goes a step further and tells us that fullness of joy resides in coming to know the face of God in Jesus, rejoicing in the discovery that we are not simply emergent life forms but beloved creatures of the Maker of the cosmos, and that we have nothing less than fullness of life with God to look forward to. If we are faithful to the One who is always faithful to us.