Rejoice! The Lord is Nearer Than Ever!

At the beginning of Advent we changed from the Gospel of St. Luke to the Gospel of St. Matthew. Today’s reading already brings out the peculiarity of Matthew’s Gospel narrative. Just as the Gospel according to Luke was written primarily for gentiles, the Gospel of Matthew was for the Jews, and it was written for people who already had an understanding of the Old Testament and specifically those who were in high expectation of the Messiah.

This expectancy was the consolation of the Israelites in their places of exile. They believed their salvation was nearer and nearer as days went by. Isaiah today gives us a tip of what the fullness of the expected Messiah and our salvation would be.

Today being the 3rd Sunday of advent, we celebrate the Gaudete Sunday. This is a Latin word translated as ‘rejoice’. Thus the readings, prayers and Entrance antiphon today are all echoing this command to rejoice. Having passed the midpoint of Advent, our joy gets more and more intense as we advance in our journey of faith.

The spirit of joy that begins this week comes from the words of St. Paul, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice! The Lord is near.” This joyful spirit is marked with rose colored vestments at the Eucharist, because it represents a lightening of the dark violet of the rest of the penitential season of Advent. It also reminds us of the color of the sky in the morning hours.

Today’s First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we have a Messianic prophesy and it is trumpeting joy for the people of God. It echoes the anticipation of God’s chosen people. The Jews in Exile who were experiencing the harshness of God’s anger were consoled by the expectancy of the Messiah as prophesized by Isaiah.

In the midst of catastrophe, Isaiah proclaims hope and it gives us the vision of what this joy, this salvation will look like. Isaiah has a wonderful imagery that depicts the coming of our God. Israel´s return from exile reflects a second Exodus, a deliverance whereby God ‘comes with vindication. God’s people waited for a Redeemer who would bring them out of their exile, something similar to what was experienced in the Exodus from Egypt.

What God was revealing to them was a different Exodus, salvation through Jesus Christ. The Almighty has ransomed his people again. Isaiah depicts the joyful advent of the Lord as a moment of healing, transformation and restoration. The healing of the parched land and the blooming of the desert express the newness and glory that the advent of God would bring.

In particular we have the images of physical healing that God will come to bring – once more the weak hands and feeble knees will be made strong, the blind will see again, the deaf will hear again, the lame will walk again and the dumb will speak again. There will be no more sorrow or mourning because our God is coming to take all that away. Through all these liberating actions, the glory of the Lord is being revealed for all to see.

Isaiah is the great prophet of hope. His words are directed to the demoralised exiles of Israel but are directed also, prophetically, to us the new Israel exiled from our heavenly homeland, the new Jerusalem. The words of Isaiah give us hope in our own day, in this vale of tears.

The actions of healing and restoration as already described above are referenced in today’s gospel as Matthew seeks to identify and explain the saving and liberating purpose of Jesus’ Messiah-ship. This is made manifest in the great drama between John and his disciples as presented in today’s Gospel reading.

John knew that he was the precursor to the Messiah but probably did not fully know that Jesus was the real Messiah. From the putrid cell of Antipas who imprisoned him for condemning Antipas’ wicked act of marrying his brother Philip’s wife; John battled with loneliness, pains and absolute abandonment.

John therefore sort a word of assurance. To clear his doubt, he sent some of his disciples to Jesus with a question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the prophets to announce the coming of the Christ.

He had leapt for joy in his mother’s womb at the approach of the as yet unborn Messiah. By the river Jordan he had pointed out the Messiah with great confidence: ‘Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’. But now in the darkness of his prison cell John began to question.

Perhaps he found it difficult to reconcile the line of Ps 145: ‘the Lord, who sets prisoners free’, with his present condition. The question that John the Baptist sent from the prison intrigues us. Did he harbor doubts about whether Jesus was the Messiah? Or was he asking for the sake of his own disciples? After all, he had already proclaimed Jesus at the River Jordan and said he was not worthy to unloose the thongs of Jesus’ sandals.

It is also possible that John too was expecting a messiah who was more aggressive than Jesus was. Jesus did not do that nor did he fulfill other commonly held expectations about which the Messiah would be and what he would do.

Nevertheless, John sent his disciples with this question not because of himself but for better clarity of personality definition from Jesus to the disciples (John’s disciples) such that as he knew his time was up, his disciples would be confident enough to submit to the master Jesus for their joy to be fulfilled.

Today’s First Reading and the Gospel of Matthew both echo that “the blind shall see” (Is. 29:18-9, 35:5-6, 61:1; Mt. 11:5; Lk. 7:22). Among the hundreds of prophecies in the Old Testament that foretold of the coming Messiah, there was one outstanding prophecy that would distinguish the promised Messiah from the false prophets. It was His ability to give sight to the blind.

Because the people were worldly-minded, Jesus provided physical miracles as a sign that the prophecies were being fulfilled through Him. At the same time, the meaning of the blind receiving their sight did not have just a physical meaning, but also a spiritual meaning. This spiritual insight would come to the people after the glorious Resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

Today Jesus proclaims his manifestoes as follows: “The blind receive their sight”- When Jesus spoke of the blind receiving their sight, He was speaking of their enlightenment to spiritual matters; ‘The lame walk’- Without Jesus, we are lame, we fall in all our undertakings and walk in the darkness of sin and death; ‘The lepers are cleansed’- since leprosy is a symbol of the state of our souls when we live in sin, Jesus comes to cleanse us; ‘The deaf hear’-those whose hearts are hardened that do not hear anything spiritual or humane would hear the language of love; ‘The dead are raised’- The dead are those who have no life in them but walk the path of darkness and for such persons he brings his resurrection; ‘The poor have good news brought to them’-the poor are the sincere who seek the truth, the way and the life through Jesus Christ.

As we await the Lord’s coming we are called to be patient with one another. Patience is a passion motivated by love and expressed in endurance. James’ words continue to speak a wise and practical lesson for believers. He asks for a patience that is strong and at the same time gentle. It is a patience that is not supine and passive but very active. It is a patience that manifests a quiet, everyday sort of strength. Today we are reminded to be patient people, viz. passionately motivated by love and willing to endure until the Lord comes. Its only by so doing our joy will mutually be complete translate these manifestoes of Christ to the life of people around us.

Join Sunday homily with Rev. Fr. Anacletus Ogbunkwu on www.anacletusogbunkwu.com

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