Advent joy takes hold

Published on 13 Dec 2019
A sign which says: J O Y

John in his prison had heard what Christ was doing [1].  The advent of the Lord makes itself known in the deepest dungeon. That the saviour is so near delights all who have been hoping for him including those who are suffering. Advent joy takes hold of us although life may be very hard.  The invitation to prepare joyfully for the arrival of Jesus addresses itself to people in all sorts of difficulties.  Like John the Baptist, they may be awaiting death in some dark, cold place where injustice has thrust them.  Advent rejoicing does not instantly dissolve all troubles.  The cheering impact is on hearts not always immediately on circumstances. Happy are those who do not lose faith [2] in Christ.  The joy is in the Lord’s drawing closer not necessarily in the alleviation of suffering. Sorrow and lament will be ended [3] but the troubles which provoke them may continue. Since John the Baptist came, up to this present time, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm [4]. There is no release from the dungeon for John.  Nevertheless to him comes delightful news of the saviour’s doings.  His mission as precursor has been accomplished. Violence will not undo his achievement. He has shown people what God had in mind for them [5] and invited them to cooperate.  The life of John the Baptist has done the good that was required of it for those who could understand.  His words and gestures have brought many back to God [6].

Let the wilderness and the dry-lands exult, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom [7]. As Jesus approaches, deserts turn into gardens. They bring forth flowers like the jonquil [8]. His advent transforms the bleakest corners of life. The Lord is near and already the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and he dead are raised to life and Good News is proclaimed to the poor [9].  In his prison, John the Baptist was elated to hear of Jesus’ work.  The miracles and the teachings were the proof that the one for whom he had been preparing had arrived.  On realising that the authentic saviour approaches, we too are filled with joy.  Hope blossoms in our wilderness.  We put our trust in the Lord, in his healing power and also in his judgement.  There is a freedom in submission to Christ, even though, as for John, our problems are not automatically solved by our becoming disciples. 

Be patient...until the Lord’s coming [10].  The wilderness is made suddenly beautiful by flowers. We would like everything that is wrong with our world to be put right quickly.  At Jesus’ second coming there will indeed be such a complete restoration. Meanwhile, not all the sick are healed, not all the dead are raised. Into some prison cells comes an announcement not of pardon but of further condemnation [11].  It is the Lord who sets prisoners free [12].  Christ graces us with a divine freedom.  God opens many doors, yet he may ask us to stay where we are.  In his good time, he will strike off the chains which bind us. His timetable may not be what we expected or hoped.  Can we rejoice not only at his proximity and his power but also in his decisions?  The Judge is already to be seen waiting at the gates [13].  Our joy is not self-righteous or proud but seeks mercy.  Advent delight is in God himself.  We rightly hurry to see and understand.  As the Son comes to meet us, however, he reins in our haste. You too have to be patient; do not lose heart because the Lord’s coming will be soon [14].  At the right moment, which he will choose, and for which he enables us to wait serenely, he will turn the desert into paradise and throw open the prison.

I tell you solemnly… a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen [15].  Jesus honours the messenger [16].  John brought an invitation to repentance for sin and careful preparation of the Lord’s way.  He delivered this message eloquently and courageously.  He was God-focused, constant and self-effacing. Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is [17].  John himself understood this subordination perfectly:  Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me? [18]  Advent joy is intensified by a sense of the greatness of the one who approaches [19].  Our delight is in our faith that he who will free us is our God as well as our brother and friend. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God [20]. We worship him.  His judgments and his decisions are accepted wholeheartedly and trustingly.  All will be well.

Jesus’ praise of John the Baptist deepens our understanding of the sources of happiness. What did you go out to the wilderness to see?  A reed swaying in the breeze? [21]  Advent joy welcomes a teaching which is true and sustaining. There was nothing insubstantial about John. His teaching, delivered in the wilderness, continues to transform lives [22]. Like an unexpected desert fruitfulness, John’s summons to repent and to prepare alters those who listen to it. His message addresses itself to people in the situation in which they find themselves [23].  Yet this teaching is not limitlessly accommodating: even now the axe is being laid to the root of the trees, so that any tree failing to produce good fruit will be cut down [24].  There is a ‘take it or leave it’ quality about the Baptist’s preaching.  Similarly, Christ, the one who is coming after [25], is also no reed swaying. With authority and love, Jesus too turns what has been a desert into a place of fruitfulness and beauty.  The blossoms are pleasing but the nearness of the saviour confers on our life no merely passing improvement.  Joy at the coming of the Lord arises in hearts and minds which have been changed forever.

John, like the other prophets, was an example of submitting with patience [26].  He had longed for the coming of Christ.  He was shut up in gaol when the Lord’s works began to be known.  The imprisonment of John the Baptist reminds us that we do not decide the circumstances in which Jesus transforms our life.  In his cell, John experienced the satisfaction of knowing that he had done what God had directed him to do. All of us can expect our Advent joy to include both a similar invitation to patience and a like hope of contentment, our troubles notwithstanding.   Patiently we learn perseverance.  Eternal life with God is inaugurated and foreshadowed by our discipleship of Christ.   The Lord’s proximity to us includes solidarity with him in suffering. Our joy at his being so near accommodates our acceptance of whatever it is, that with his help, we are called upon to endure.

Peter Gallagher SJ

[1]  Matthew 11.2
[2]  Matthew 11.6
[3]  Isaiah 35.10
[4]  Matthew 11.12
[5]  Luke 7.30
[6]  John 1.7
[7]  Isaiah 35.1
[8]  Isaiah 35.1-2
[9]  Matthew 11.5
[10]  James 5.7
[11] Matthew 14.10 Herod sent to have John beheaded in prison
[12] Psalm (146) 145.7
[13] James 5.9
[14] James 5.8
[15] Matthew 11.11 quoting Malachi 3.1
[16] Matthew 11.10
[17] Matthew 11.11
[18] Matthew 3.13-14
[19] Luke 1.41 as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leapt in her womb
[20] Isaiah 35.2
[21] Matthew 11.7
[22] Luke 7.29
[23] Matthew 3.5-6 and Luke 3.10-14
[24] Matthew 3.10
[25] John 1.17
[26] James 5.10