Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A.
In the year 1223, on his way back from Rome, St. Francis of Assisi stopped in the little Italian town of Greccio. The caves in that town reminded him of another little town—Bethlehem—which Francis had visited several years before. This gave Francis an idea. And so, on December 10, fifteen days before Christmas, Francis asked a local man named John to help bring his idea to life. When Christmas day arrived, everything was exactly as he had imagined. Around a manger full of hay, with an ox and a donkey standing by, the people of Greccio gathered, lay and religious alike. And over that first manger scene, the priest celebrated Christmas Mass. It was a profound moment for all. As the people celebrated the presence of the Son of God in the Christ-child they also celebrated His presence in the Holy Eucharist. According to the first biographer of Francis, one of those present at the Mass actually had a vision of the Christ-child lying in the manger. The biographer also noted that, when Mass was over, everyone went home with joy.
As you were coming into Mass today, you may have noticed our own manger scene in the Gathering Hall. It’s missing a live ox and donkey, but it does have a stable full of hay. And like those that gathered to see that first manger scene eight-hundred years ago, we too can rejoice: for the Lord is near. He is coming soon at Christmas, but even sooner on this altar. And nothing can separate us from Him.
Today we celebrate “Gaudete” Sunday. For every Mass, the Church provides a text, usually from Scripture, to help us enter into the mystery being celebrated at that particular Mass. This text is called the Entrance Antiphon. For this Sunday, the text comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This letter was written by Paul when he was in prison for preaching the gospel. In prison—and more than that, in danger of death—Paul took the time to write this letter to the very first Christian community he founded on the European continent. And despite his circumstances, his message is profoundly uplifting. Indeed, in the fourth chapter of his letter, we find these words: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” In Latin: “Gaudete in Domino semper!” Paul then goes on to give the reason for this joy: because [quote] “the Lord is near.”
In our gospel, we find another saint in prison; this time it’s John the Baptist. John has been arrested for preaching the truth about Herod’s invalid marriage, and, like St. Paul, is now in danger of death. In his captivity, John hears about what his cousin has been up to. Jesus has been going about fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah spoke of a coming messiah who would be anointed with the Holy Spirit and bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, and healing for the blind, deaf, and lame. Jesus has been doing all these things and more, and yet John remains in prison. Jesus has been doing mighty works for complete strangers, but not for His own flesh and blood. We can imagine, in a moment of doubt, John wondering if Jesus really was the Messiah. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Although they are both saints, Paul and John the Baptist respond to their captivity in different ways. Paul speaks a message of joy; John the Baptist asks a question filled with doubt. Paul, however, has an advantage that John the Baptist does not. Paul knows that Jesus really is the Messiah; he knows that Jesus really is the Lord. And Paul knows that nothing can separate him from Jesus—certainly not the four walls of a prison and not even the threat, or even the reality, of death. If Jesus can rise from the dead, then death has no power over Him. Nor does it have power over those, like Paul, who belong to Jesus. Paul can then rejoice, no matter his circumstances, because “the Lord is near,” because Jesus is with him.
John the Baptist prepared the way for the kingdom of heaven. And because of his role in doing this, John is accounted by Jesus as the greatest among those born of women. But John didn’t live to see the events of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, which definitively ushered in the time of the kingdom. To live in a time after these events, even if you are accounted among the least and lowly, is to have an advantage that John did not. That is the advantage that Paul had: the advantage of knowing that nothing—not even death—can separate us from Jesus. To live in the time of the kingdom, as we do, and as Paul did, is to know that the Lord is with us, that He is near, and that He’s not going anywhere. And if nothing else in our life is looking up, this truth alone is enough to bring us joy.
None of us here today are literally in prison, but we may be captive by fear or doubt. We may be stuck in the prisons of our own minds and hearts. Although we live in the time of the kingdom, we may, like John the Baptist, wonder if Jesus really is the Messiah. We may wonder if He can set us free, or if He even cares. And so, let us ask Jesus at this Mass to remind us that He is near, no matter the circumstances of our lives. Jesus has left Himself in the Sacrament of the Altar for this very reason: to be with us always until the end of time. As we receive Him at this Mass, let us take comfort in the knowledge that He is with us. Let us allow Him to liberate us from our prisons of fear and doubt. And let us rejoice in Him—always. Amen.