Humble Joy

3rd Sunday of Advent (Year B)

“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.”

1 Thessalonians 5:16

The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Guadete or “Rejoice” Sunday, from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon for that Mass: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.  Dominus enim prope est. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed, the Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5). 

Rejoicing is very much the theme of this Mass. The penitential purple is lightened to rose in the liturgical vestments as we rejoice at the imminent coming of our Lord at Christmas. The first reading says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord” (Is 61:10). The psalm response is, “My soul rejoices in my God” (Is 61:10b).  In the second reading, St. Paul tells us to “rejoice always” (1 Thes 5:16).  

In the midst of all this joy, it might seem a bit odd that the gospel reading focuses on John the Baptist, the desert hermit who ate insects and told people to repent. We don’t typically think of John as a joyful fellow. Yet John the Baptist is the patron saint of spiritual joy. After all, when the pregnant Mary came before her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant at that time with John, he leaped for joy in his mother’s womb (Lk 1:44). The gospels tell us John rejoices at the bridegroom’s voice (Jn 3:29-30). John has a thing or two to teach us about joy, if we would listen.

John’s joy is rooted in humility. Let us not forget that John, by this time, had developed quite a following. This is why in the gospel this Sunday, the priests and Levites are sent to ask John about his identity. They want to know just who this man is and what he is up to. They are a little afraid of his influence. The gospels even tell us that there is none born of women who are greater than John the Baptist (Mt 11:11, Lk 7:28). Have no doubt about it, John is a great man.  But when the priests ask him who he is, John does not point to his greatness – or to anything else about himself. He tells them plainly, “I am not the Christ.” There is great freedom and joy to be found in knowing who you are, and you who are not. 

I suspect that there is no one reading this who would claim to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. But even though we don’t claim it in words, we proclaim it in our actions whenever we fail to rely on God. When we refuse to repent of our sins, when we deny the need for God’s forgiveness, we say by our actions that we can save ourselves. We are claiming to be our own Christ. When we think we know better than God, or the Church He founded and continues to guide, we act as our own God. When we put ourselves, not God, first in our lives, we act as if we were the highest good. 

The truth is that we cannot save ourselves. If we try, we will fail, every time. We need God’s love and mercy. We are good, but we are not the greatest good. To recognize reality and our place in it we need to be humble like John the Baptist and admit, “I am not the Christ.”

John was humble. That is why he was happy. True humility does not involve berating yourself. We tend to think of pride as saying, “Look how great I am,” and humility, its opposite, as saying, “Look how horrible I am.” But this is just another form of pride, as you are still focusing the attention on yourself. True humility does not look inward, but outward. John never said, “Look at me,” either to say how great he was, or how poor he was. Instead, he said, “Look at Jesus!” John said, “I must decrease so that He might increase” (Jn 3:30). In this way he is like the Virgin Mary, who never points to herself, but always to her Son.  

Recognizing that there is a God and we are not Him relieves us of a heavy burden. We cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we might try. When we finally admit that we are not our own personal Christ, we can start to look outside ourselves for the real Christ. We start to look for something greater than ourselves. John recognized Jesus as one infinitely greater than he. He found the incarnate God, born among us to bring us light, love and salvation. There is cause for rejoicing here, for those humble enough to receive Him.

Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I say, rejoice!  Indeed, the Lord is near!