The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin verb for “rejoice.” The opening line in Paul’s list of imperatives at the end of 1 Thessalonians captures the spirit of the day: “Rejoice always.” Besides the theme of joy running through the readings, there is another theme: witness. The Old Testament prophet, Mary and John the Baptist all bear joyful witness to what God has done and will do for his people.
The reading from Isaiah 61 reflects the confused situation of Israel after the return from exile in the late 6th century B.C. Things had not gone as smoothly as Second Isaiah (Ch. 40-55) had predicted. Nevertheless, the prophet behind Third Isaiah (Ch. 56-66) refuses to wallow in discouragement. Rather, he describes his prophetic calling as bringing “glad tidings to the lowly” and regards it as a source of great joy: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.” In the Old Testament there are many occasions for joy: marriage, the birth of children, good harvests, recovery from sickness and defeat of enemies. But the greatest and most basic source of joy is God’s action on behalf of his people. To this the prophet is a joyful witness. And his joy has a social dimension not only for the poor and oppressed in Israel but for all peoples.
The responsorial psalm is taken not from the Old Testament but rather from Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). The context is Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. When greeted as “the mother of my Lord,” Mary breaks into song, praising God for what God was doing through her and expressing her joy in God as savior. There is also a social dimension to Mary’s joyful witness, since the birth of her child, the messiah, will bring fullness to the hungry and mercy to God’s people. Like the prophet, Mary focuses her joyful witness on what God has done and will do for his people.
The reading from John’s Gospel includes many of the themes found in the other Gospel accounts about John the Baptist. He is perceived by some as an Elijah figure. He is making straight the way of the Lord according to Isa 40:3. He prepares for the coming of the one whose person and baptism are superior to his own.
There is, however, one theme that is distinctive in the Johannine portrayal of John the Baptist. That theme is witness: “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light.” The word for “testimony” or “witness” in Greek is martyria, from which we derive our word “martyr.” The term evokes the setting of a law court. In such a setting the witness stands up, gives testimony and speaks the truth. In his witness John the Baptist refuses to make himself the center of attention. Instead, he rejoices in his role as a witness to Jesus.
The theme of witness runs through John’s Gospel. Jesus as the revealer and revelation of God bears witness to his heavenly father, the one who sent him. As the primary and most important witness, Jesus enables us to know who God is and what God wills. All his teachings and activities bear witness to his father. During Jesus’ public ministry and especially during his passion, death and resurrection (his “lifting up”), the Father bears witness to him. As Jesus departs from his disciples at the Last Supper, he promises that the Paraclete or Holy Spirit will bear witness about him to future generations. The Son bears witness to the Father, the Father bears witness to the Son, and the Holy Spirit bears witness to the Son and the Father.
The way in which faithful people relate to Jesus, according to John’s Gospel, is also expressed by the theme of witness. The evangelist and his community state that “we testify to what we have seen” (2:11). The Samaritan woman and the crowds bear witness to Jesus. The evangelist concludes his Gospel by describing his work as bearing witness to Jesus (21:24). Throughout John’s Gospel there is a chain of witnesses to Jesus and his works. And that chain of witnesses begins with John the Baptist.
John the Baptist’s role as a joyful witness to Jesus makes him a great Advent figure. His witness not only prepares the way for Jesus but also provides an example for us. Indeed, one way to describe our vocation as Christians is by the term “witness.” We stand up and say what we know to be the truth about God and about Jesus. We stand beside John the Baptist and the other great characters of the Fourth Gospel, and bear witness to what we know and believe about the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. In this witness we can and should “rejoice always.”