"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." So begins the Gospel of John with a stunning discourse on the Word. We could very loosely call it a history of the Word who becomes flesh.
The Word we now usually refer to as Jesus Christ. But these lofty poetic words are interrupted by a very down to earth account of John the Baptist. And it is these two interruptions that make up today's Gospel reading at Mass.
At times we Catholics, and in particular we preachers, can get so caught up with lofty sounding words on the theory of God that we miss out the encounter with God. This opening of John's Gospel can sound as if the preacher is being interrupted by an enthusiastic member of the congregation. "What about John the Baptist?" he shouts, "Remember the here and now". The Baptist is saying the Lord is on his way.
Today the third Sunday of Advent is also called Gaudete Sunday from the Latin of the Introit to the Mass, "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice." It is as if our sombre preparation for Christmas is interrupted by this call to rejoice. We are told to rejoice and this call is repeated. This should grab our attention just as the interruptions about John the Baptist should grab our attention as they both can serve the same purpose.
One of the blessings of the Church's liturgical calendar is that it gives us times throughout the year to focus on different aspects of our faith. But one of the drawbacks is that this can instil in us a certain complacency. "Oh it's time for Lent again" or "Is it Advent already? Where has the year gone?" Today our passive acceptance is shaken as if we ourselves are being shaken as we are told to rejoice or at least reminded to rejoice. We rejoice that there is more to this season that putting up decorations and doing the shopping, there is more to Christmas than eating and drinking too much.
But where does this call to rejoice lead us? Well it takes us into the wilderness to where the Baptist is. It strips away all pretence. This call to rejoice is not a call to put a smile on our face and be happy, or, if we can't do that, at least look happy. No, it is far more profound. In the wilderness the Baptist speaks honestly about himself because he knows himself; there is no pretence. He speaks of the One who is to come whose sandals he is unworthy to untie. In order to rejoice in the Lord we must first encounter ourselves.
Notice how today's reading from Isaiah is put together: first there is liberation then rejoicing: "He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn"; it is only then that it is possible to speak of rejoicing. So as we take ourselves into the wilderness with the Baptist we liberate ourselves from the pretence of our lives, the show we put on for other people: the pretence that we are sinless. In the wilderness we see ourselves are we really are. We see our frailty and brokenness a broken image of the Christ.
It is in the wilderness we meet those who have also come to search out the Baptist to be shown the Lord who is to come. We meet those Christians from various places around the world who are literally fleeing for their lives because they believe in Christ. We meet those broken by poverty and hunger. We meet those who have been abused by people who should have loved and cared for them. We meet the lonely and bereaved. And together, in our varying degrees of brokenness and suffering we rejoice. We rejoice because we encounter the Lord and in his presence everything else is transformed.
Today we are shaken from our sleep and reminded to rejoice because the Lord has come to each and every one of us. We rejoice because he has promised us a share in his life for ever. We rejoice because he will come again in glory.
"May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ".