Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 11 December 2011
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; Luke 1:46-50, 53-54
In many churches which use advent candles, the candle for the third Sunday in Advent is a rose (pink) one, symbolising joy. My image of John the Baptist tends to be of a stern, almost scary figure, but I’ll follow the cue of the candle and reflect on today’s readings through a lens of joyfulness; I’ll take Paul’s injunction to ‘rejoice always’ seriously.
John the Baptist as a joyful figure? Well, he is a witness to the coming light, and he knows that the light is already here, but not yet recognised. His hope is not distant, but immediate. His task is to invite people to prepare to receive the light, not to try to be the light himself. John doesn’t have an inflated sense of himself. He is content to be the voice that announces the coming of the Lord. That humility gives him great freedom. He is neither intimidated by the envoys from Jerusalem nor weighed down by accepting the massive expectations that people want to put on him. He has heard his call and sticks to it. It seems to me that he lived out the kind of life that Paul exhorts us to – a life saturated in prayer that is sensitive to the movement of the Spirit. It could have been scary to take on the religious establishment by offering baptism to the masses in preparation for the immanent arrival of the one who would bring in the Kingdom of God. Good news for the marginalised isn’t good news for everyone. It will probably be strenuously resisted by the powerful that benefit from the status quo. But John was certain of the faithfulness of the One who had called him. That sounds like a recipe for a joyful life.
For Paul, the life of faith is to be characterised by joy, gratitude and openness to the Spirit. But it isn’t to be a naive life: there is the matter of testing everything. Unfortunately, claims to be Spirit-led can be another way of playing the power game within a religious context. The Gospel can be repackaged as good news for the well off and comfortable; hence the need for discernment. We still need the prophets.
Mary’s hymn in response to the angel is a magnificent outpouring of joy. She is poor and humble, yet chosen by God to bear the Light. What a moment, to realise that now, through her, God is coming to the help of God’s people. Like John the Baptist, she knows that the Coming One is already here, but still unknown.
We who live in this time of now and not-yet, who look back to that first Christmas and yet still long for the coming of the Light, are also invited to live joyfully. We are called, like Mary and like John the Baptist, to open ourselves to God and to live out our calling in joyful hope. If we look carefully, we can see the shoots in the garden of which Isaiah speaks – the justice and praise that God is making spring up. Christ is within us and among us, though largely unknown. God is still telling the glorious story in us and through us. And we are part of it. We don’t have to manufacture it, or make it up as we go along. No wonder we can rejoice!