On this Sunday, called Gaudete from the Latin for “rejoice,” rejoicing is a thread that weaves through all the readings, from the joy of the exiles returning to Jerusalem to the rejoicing of Mary in the Magnificat (the responsorial psalm) to Paul’s insistence that the Thessalonians rejoice at every moment. What is notable in each instance is that joy is not a vague sentiment or an abstract concept. It wells up in response to very concrete signs of God’s providential care.
Isaiah’s list of what makes for glad tidings is very familiar: healing of broken hearts, liberty for all who are captive, release for those imprisoned. It is the same mission that Jesus claims for his own in Lk 4:18-19. These freeing acts are prescribed for the jubilee year in Leviticus 25. Every 50 years debts are to be erased, land returned to its original owners, and those held bound are to be released. We do not know whether the jubilee year was ever observed the way it is described in Leviticus, but jubilee practices are always in season, especially in Advent.
In a year when many are constrained financially, jubilee gifts are especially appropriate. They cost nothing but an open and giving spirit. For example, extending forgiveness to someone I have held bound with resentment can be like clothing them with a “robe of salvation,” or wrapping both of us in “a mantle of justice,” as we accept God’s saving work of reconciliation in our lives. This is an extravagant gift—one more valuable than a bridegroom’s “diadem” or a bride’s “jewels.” It is the kind of gift that makes a springtime of new possibilities burst forth in the midst of winter.
In her Magnificat, Mary’s rejoicing is caused not only by God’s mysterious workings in her own life, but by all the ways in which God’s mercy has been manifest in every generation. Mary sings of a leveling: all who had been hungry are filled to satisfaction, and those who had gorged themselves to excess are emptied out. Justice, as Mary envisions it and as her son later enacts it, is not a reversal of fortune, so that those who had plenty are now wanting, while those who were wanting now have the excess. Rather, right relationship, in the biblical view, is that all have enough to eat and none go hungry. To accomplish this, those who had hoarded too much have to relinquish some to the rightful owners, that is, those who had been made poor by others’ greed and who have a right to eat and be satisfied too.
How are we to cultivate an open and generous heart that moves us to give these kinds of gifts? Paul advises the Thessalonians and us to do three things constantly: rejoice, pray and give thanks, no matter what the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If we stay centered on God, the Spirit remains aflame in us, and we are able to discern truth and follow its demands. By giving thanks at all times, we let go of any sense of entitlement or covetousness. Paul would have us recognize that the ability to do this is itself a gift—one that God, who is faithful, will accomplish in us.
In the Gospel, we hear John the Baptist using Isaiah’s words to present himself as “the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” This was John’s answer to the religious leaders who wanted to know, “Who are you?” John first says who he is not. He is not the Christ, that is, the “Anointed One” or “Messiah.” The Greek word christos, like the Hebrew word mashiah, “anointed,” designates one who is set apart by God for particular service, like kings (Ps 2:2; 89:20), priests (Lev 4:3, 5) and prophets (1 Kgs 19:16). There were many differing expectations among Jews of Jesus’ day about a coming anointed one. Some thought Elijah would return to purify the priesthood (Mal 3:2-4) and restore the tribes of Israel (Sir 48:10); others expected a prophet like Moses (Dt 15:18). John accepts none of these designations for himself. He is simply the one pointing toward the expected one. He himself is not “the light”; he came to testify to the light and bring others to believe through his testimony. In a certain sense, though, John is a light to others. Just as effective lighting in a room does not call attention to itself, but rather enables you to see what is in the room, so too John is not the focus, but rather points to the one who is the light. This expected one is already in their midst, and in our midst. Do you recognize him?