I struggled to write this reflection. The central focus of Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is the joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth, but how to write convincingly about joy when it eludes me as I wrestle as a single, gay Catholic away from home with the pain of loneliness?
The long stretches of night and blistering winter cold now encroaching have only deepened my sense of isolation.
Doctoral study is terribly long, and all that mental digging has left me craving for companionship. In these days of political anxiety that have left so many bruised, I am muted by and aghast at the bleakness of violence and division consuming our world.
In such wearying circumstances when stupefied hearts do not feel free to rejoice, how do I—and how do we as people of faith—properly celebrate Gaudete Sunday?
At least, by God’s grace, there is something in Sunday's Gospel that could still speak to me. It is a small textual detail: John the Baptist is in prison. Despite being in prison, he hears of the works of Christ and sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Even imprisonment does not deter John from being prayerfully alive to the signs of life he senses in Jesus Christ.
It strikes me that part of being prayerfully alive means engaging our capacity for amazement.
If this is so, John exemplifies a posture that challenges us this Gaudete Sunday: in the prisons that we may find ourselves, including prisons of discouragement, despair, and depression, how might we remain attentive to and discerning of the signs of the times that herald God’s liberating love?
How are we invited this Advent to pause and make room for radical amazement at God’s divine life, which is always at work in spite of and through the fragility of human love that can disappoint and has failed?
As the Gospel reminds us, Jesus must be the source of amazement that is reflected in Christian witness. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” What is proclaimed here is that in and through the Incarnation, God will and has come as audacious love that transgresses, subverts and heals.
Yet, Jesus who reveals God’s sovereignty does something else in this passage.
Jesus lifts up the witness of John the Baptist as “more than a prophet,” as the “messenger” that Isaiah prophesied. This mutual confirmation and affirmation between John and Jesus echoes the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1:39-45.
John, as a baby in Elizabeth’s womb, leaps for joy upon the greeting of Mary who bears the good news, Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. Echoing this encounter, joy is the subtext in today’s Gospel.
In these dramas of mutual recognition, I find consolation: that in the midst of my darkness that renders me invisible to myself, God sees and understands.There is also profound strength felt in knowing that God sees our giftedness as LGBTQ persons and calls us out to be fruitful witnesses of an audacious love as siblings, friends, lovers and neighbors.
Might this be joy?
Is joy the fruit of being fully alive in God who takes delights in us as beloved children, standing with and living within us?
I suspect the joy that we anticipate in Christmas is not based on our own striving to make room for Jesus at all. Rather, it is the joy that comes when we make room for amazement to see that God has chosen to meet us down below in the shoddiness and messiness of the manger.
As theologian Karl Barth preached in a Christmas homily to prisoners:
Down there Jesus Christ sets up his quarters. Even better, he has already done so! Yes, praise be to God for this dark place, for this manger, for this stable in our lives! There we need him, and there he can use each one of us … There he only waits that we see him, recognize him, believe in him, and love him.
God is nearer to us than we imagine, and for this we can rejoice. Should not we then rejoice?
Still, I find joy ungraspable. Maybe this absence allows me to clear a space in my heart to be attentive and amazed once again so that joy can then grasp me. I stare at the trees shedding their leaves. They stand barren in the blasting cold of winter. Yet, in the crisp sharp air, I stand amazed at the sturdiness of these trees. They do not shiver, but speak back to me the words of Isaiah—“Be strong, fear not!” They remain firm, deepening their roots.
I wonder at life on the underside, beneath the ground and in the soil.
This, I suggest, is the call of Advent: to be astonished at and delight in the small signs of life found at the most unexpected places in the bleakness of time. Where there is life, there is God—with the possibility and reality of indefatigable joy, still elusive, but ever graced.