Homily: Not Feeling the Joy

We rejoice on Gaudete Sunday — but not everyone feels it.

St. John the Baptist in Prison (Juan Fernandez de Naverrete, ca. 1565)
St. John the Baptist in Prison (Juan Fernandez de Naverrete, ca. 1565) (photo: Public Domain)

Note: This is my sixth homily. I preached it twice, at the Saturday evening Vigil Mass and early Sunday morning. This lightly edited text combines elements of both versions. — SDG

The desert and the parched land will rejoice and bloom with abundant flowers, Isaiah declares in our first reading seven centuries before Jesus’ time. And not only that: the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared, the lame will leap, the mute will sing. Not only speak, but sing!

When will this happen, according to Isaiah? When God comes to visit his people: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.”

Fast-forward seven centuries to Jesus’ time. John the Baptist, in prison, seems to be having doubts. John, having doubts? The cousin of the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, leaping for joy as a fetus at the voice of the Virgin Mary? John, who proclaimed Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and said that Jesus should baptize him rather than vice versa, who saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven and remain on Jesus, who said “He must increase, but I must decrease”? John sends messengers from prison to ask Jesus: “Are you the guy? Was I right all that time? Or could it possibly be that I misread the signs and it’s someone else?” Is that possible?

Maybe not. John could have sent his disciples to Jesus for their sake, not his own. Jesus himself says John’s not some reed shaken by the wind. But it sounds like he’s struggling. He’s only human.

Jesus’ answer calls back to the first reading: That day Isaiah talked about 700 years ago has come, he says in effect. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. In other words, as Isaiah foretold, God has come to visit his people. In Jesus, God has come to save us!

Now of course God’s people in Jesus’ day were waiting for the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, God’s chosen king. And there were lots of different ideas about what this messiah would be like.

But there was another hope, an even greater one: the hope that God would not just send a king, but that God himself would come to his people and be their king. “Here is your God,” Isaiah says; “he comes to save you.”

Another prophet, Zechariah, wrote about the coming of the Lord in this way:

“On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives which lies before Jerusalem on the east…Then the Lord your God will come, and all the holy ones with him… And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.”

God will become king, not just of Israel, but of all the earth. And God’s name will be one; not only Israel, but even the Gentile nations will worship the one true God, the God of Abraham. This was the great hope of Israel, even more than the hope of a messiah, a human king: that God himself would come to Israel and be their king, and not only theirs, but the king of all the earth.

The Jews had these two great hopes. What they didn’t realize was that the two hopes were one. In Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, God himself came to his people as their king. The time of rejoicing has come, Jesus says! The desert rejoices and blooms; the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

Jesus’ coming was news, good news, which is what the word “gospel” means. His coming changed the world. It changed everything. God had come to his people, bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. And from then on God would be worshiped not only by the Israelites, but even by the Gentiles — by all of us. As Catholics, members of the Catholic Church, we have God as our king; we are citizens of his kingdom on earth as in heaven.

This is good news, and we do rejoice, especially today, on the vigil of the third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday — Gaudete, “Rejoice!” in Latin — when we put aside the purple of Advent for the rose of joyous anticipation, and light the rose candle on the Advent wreath, to mark the fact that we’re more than halfway to Christmas.

At the same time, Advent isn’t over, which means we’re still waiting and hoping, just as the Jews in Jesus’ day were still waiting and hoping for the Messiah to come, for God to come and bring his kingdom.

And even when Jesus actually came bringing the kingdom, healing the blind, the deaf and the lame, everything wasn’t exactly abundant flowers blooming in the desert. Just ask John the Baptist in prison.

We rejoice on Gaudete Sunday that Christmas is coming, that the Lord is with us. But like John the Baptist in prison, not everyone is feeling the joy. Particularly at this time of year, many people suffer from holiday blues: depression, anxiety, alienation.

This happens for many reasons. We look around and see all these signs of festivities, rejoicing, celebration, and if for whatever reason you don’t feel the joy, it’s easy left out, to wonder “What’s wrong with me?” Maybe even to feel unworthy of the joy that we see around us. The joy is for other people, not for me.

Hopefully that’s not you. I hope and pray that it’s not. Maybe you’re here at St. John’s, in this magnificent church where perhaps you and perhaps your family have many years of happy memories, and you’re listening the soaring Advent music floating down from the choir loft, and you feel the joy.

If that’s you, remember Isaiah’s prophecy that the mute would not only speak, but sing. If you’re not mute, then you should speak and even sing! We’re here to rejoice — so rejoice! In a few minutes, Father will begin the Eucharistic Prayer, and early on he’ll say to you, “Lift up your hearts!” You’ll answer, “We lift them up to the Lord.” If you say it, you should do it — and say it like you mean it!

You may not think it matters if you open your hymnal and sing, but it does. It affects the people in the pews around you. It even affects you. St. Augustine said he who sings prays twice. Some people come to Mass and don’t even pray once.

When Mass is over, some of you will go home to where perhaps there are already colored lights welcoming you home, or there will be soon. In our family we wait until Gaudete Sunday weekend to buy and decorate our tree and string lights and forth. I understand the Vatican’s Christmas tree was just lit for the first time this weekend.

But you might know someone who’s left out, like John the Baptist. A depressed neighbor or coworker, a lonely relative, maybe someone shut in or in a nursing home. A sibling or cousin you haven’t talked to in a long time. Maybe someone who lives far away that you only hear from on social media. Someone who for whatever reason isn’t feeling the joy.

Maybe there’s something you could do, like Jesus, to send them a message of encouragement and hope. If it’s someone you know well enough, and they’re nearby, that might mean stopping by to visit them, especially if they’re shut in or in nursing home. Or it might mean a phone call, an email, a text message, a note on Facebook, something to say you’re thinking about them. Maybe you’re making plans for Christmas and New Year’s, and you know someone who might not have any place to be on Christmas, and you could change that. Maybe invite them to Christmas dinner. Or to Christmas Eve Mass. Or both.

And if it’s not someone you know, but you yourself — if you’re here at St. John’s and you’re the one who feels left out, maybe even wondering, like John in prison, whether even Jesus can help you — I want to say to you, at the very least: I’m glad you’re here. God is glad that you’re here. Jesus’ message of good news is for you. Whatever you go through, he suffers with you. Even if your heart sometimes feels like a desert, believe me: That desert can bloom.

Be strong, fear not. Here is your God! He comes to save…you.