Sunday, 15 December 2013

Waiting for Christmas: high
expectations or disappointments?

Salome visiting Saint John the Baptist in Prison, Francesco Barbieri (Il Guernico)

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Sunday 15 December 2013,

The Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday).

8. 30 a.m., Said Eucharist (The Lady Chapel).

Isaiah 35: 1-10; Psalm 146: 4-10; James 5: 7-10; and Matthew 11: 2-11.


May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, is commonly known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word Gaudete (“Rejoice”), the first word of the traditional introit of this day’s Liturgy:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”

On Gaudete Sunday, on the Advent wreath, the rose-coloured or pink candle is lit and the readings emphasise the joyous anticipation of the Lord’s coming.

In our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 35: 1-10), the Prophet Isaiah foretells:

● the restoration of the land to fertility
● the end of human suffering and sickness
● the restoration of hope and justice
● the joyful return of the exiles from captivity.

The Psalm (Psalm 146: 5-10) echoes the theme of restoration, focussing especially on God’s justice.

The Epistle reading (James 5: 7-10) is encouragement to keep faith in the coming kingdom in the midst of suffering and injustice in this world. Saint James tells us to be patient in suffering like the prophets.

The Gospel reading (Matthew 11: 2-11), like the third, pink candle on the Advent Wreath, is a reminder of Saint John the Baptist.

We already meet Saint John the Baptist by the banks of the River Jordan in the Gospel reading last Sunday (Matthew 3: 1-12, 8 December 2013).

Have you ever wondered why John the Baptist in this morning’s Gospel reading appears not to know who Jesus is? Is this not the same John who leaped with joy in his mother’s womb when he realised he was in the presence of the unborn Christ (see Luke 1: 44)?

As John waits in prison, about to lose his head, did he wonder whether he made a mistake in thinking Jesus is the Messiah? Is he feeling discouraged and doubtful when he sends messengers to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

In his answer, Christ points Saint John, the messengers and the crowd to the signs of the Kingdom. Echoing the Prophet Isaiah, he points out that the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the dead are raised and the poor receive good news.

Is it possible that Saint John was expecting for the wrong kind of Messiah?

When Saint John’s disciples return and tell him what Christ has told them, does Saint John conclude that Jesus is not the Messiah he has been waiting for?

How often have you waited expectantly – for Christmas, for a Christmas present, for a new job, for a major family milestone, for the move to a new home – only to face the realisation that your expectation has been unfulfilled? Another pair of socks? The wrong job with low pay, high expectations and bad conditions? The family milestone upstaged by a family crisis? The new home has horrid neighbours? Is the person I loved so many years ago really the person I live with now?

Picture Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, lonely and empty by the side of the road, waiting forever for Godot who never arrives.

Picture Eleanor Rigby in the lyrics of the Beatles, waiting alone at the window, alone among the lonely people.

Picture Saint John the Baptist, waiting in a cell where he has been imprisoned by Herod the Great.

Now he is tired. He has grown discouraged. He is questioning. He is dispirited, he has questions, and he has doubts.

What happened to the John the Baptist who hailed Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?

Of course, I do not agree with those who argue that Saint John the Baptist now doubts whether Jesus is truly the Christ. It is not Saint John the Baptist who is a reed swaying in the wind, blown about by the happenings of the world and the persecution he now faces. It is the people who went to see him who are now being told they are like reeds swaying in the wind.

Saint John knows that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Saint Jerome says that Saint John, who is about to be put to death by Herod, sends his disciples to Christ so that they have the opportunity of seeing his signs and wonders so they might believe in him (Jerome, Catena Aurea, Matthew 11: 2-6).

By sending them to question Christ about his mission, Saint John the Baptist offers his disciples the opportunity to become true disciples of Christ. This is the opinion of Saint Hilary, Saint Chrysostom, Saint Cyril and many other patristic writers.

When we are disappointed, when our expectations of the coming Kingdom are dashed, is it because we are not looking for the signs of the Kingdom that are all around us?

The gift of Christ is precious, but does it always meet our expectations?

Are we prepared to look around and notice new places where Christ is working and living? If you were told: “Go and tell John what you see and hear,” where would you say you see and hear Christ at work today?

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Collect:

O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end.

Post Communion Prayer:

Father,
we give you thanks for these heavenly gifts.
Kindle us with the fire of your Spirit
that when Christ comes again
we may shine as lights before his face;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This reflection was prepared for the Said Eucharist in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday 15 December 2013.

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