Advent 3 A

From Fr. Jude Botelho:

The Exodus was deeply engrained on the memory of Israel. The Israelites surrounded my misery and despair long for a new exodus. For Isaiah in particular, the judgement of God, the destruction of the wicked, and of joy for the afflicted, the sick and the poor ones, reveals itself as a new Exodus towards Zion. In the first reading the prophet Isaiah uses the image of a desert, made fertile by rain, to portray the confident hope that God would restore his people crushed by misfortune. The most crippling disabilities –blindness, deafness, and lameness –will be relieved when God sends salvation to his people. Isaiah appeals to the people: “Have courage! Do not be unafraid!”

Unfinished Play
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American writer. When he died in 1864 he had on his desk the outline of a play he never got a chance to finish. The play centred around a person who never appeared on stage. Everyone talked about him. Everyone dreamed about him. Everyone waited for his arrival. But he never came. All kinds of minor characters described him. They told everybody what he would do. But the main character never appeared. –The Old Testament is something like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s play. It too ended without the main character putting in an appearance. Everyone talked about the Messiah, everyone awaited his arrival. But he never came. In today’s reading we hear Isaiah describe what the Messiah would do. We are called to believe that He will come and fulfill his promise of bringing salvation to us and to all mankind.
Mark Link in ‘Sunday Homilies’

The second reading from James talks of the Second Coming of Jesus. He urges the kind of patience and hope farmers show in waiting for the harvest, and which the prophets of old showed as they waited for the promises to be fulfilled. It is a patience that does not lose hope, no matter how hard the situation; a patience that is strong and yet at the same time gentle. It is a patience that is not passive but active. It is a patience that manifests quiet, every day sort of strength. In the meanwhile we cry out with today’s response psalm: “Lord come and save us!”
racticing Patience
“One moment of patience may ward off great distaste, one moment of impatience may ruin a whole life.” (Chinese Proverb)
There is a story of a man who prayed earnestly for grace to overcome his besetting sin of impatience. A little later he missed the train by half a minute and spent half an hour stamping up and down the platform in furious vexation. Five minutes before the next train came in he suddenly realized that there had been an answer to his prayer. He had been given an hour to practice the virtue of patience, he had missed the opportunity and wasted the hour.
- Bernard Hodgson in ‘Quotes and Anecdotes’

In today’s reading of Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist has his doubts about the identity of Jesus and so we hear him questioning Jesus through his disciples. “Are you the Messiah, the one who is to come?” John’s situation was a grim one as he was locked up in a dark dungeon with the threat of death hanging over him. His faith was being seriously tested. He needed reassurance and comforting. John had been preparing the people for the coming of the Messiah. John’s idea of the Messiah was that of a stern, uncompromising judge. But Jesus was not living up to that image, instead he was acting like a savior. His radiant friendliness contrasted sharply with the severity of John. John was an ascetic, who lived apart from the people, Jesus on the other hand freely mixed with people and ate and drank with sinners. John prophesized judgement, while Jesus prophesized salvation. John was confused and wanted to know for sure, so he sent two of his disciples to question Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” Jesus might have replied with a straight forward yes, but that would have got him into trouble with the authorities. Neither could he deny that he was the Messiah, for that would be lying. Instead, he chose to point out the answer through his actions. His actions were exactly the kind Isaiah had predicted for the Messianic times. Jesus was happy to let his actions speak for themselves.

Dying in Darkness
The great astronomer, Galileo, was born near Florence, in the year 1564. He confirmed what Copernicus had said, namely, that the earth goes round the sun, and not vice versa. His discoveries greatly enlarged our knowledge of the universe. Yet he spent his last years in darkness. When summoned before the inquisition he wrote: ‘Alas, poor Galileo, your devoted servant, totally and incurably blind; so that this heaven, this earth, this universe, which by my observations and demonstrations, I have enlarged a thousand fold beyond their previous limits, are now shriveled for me into such a narrow compass as is filled by my own bodily sensations.’ –Galileo reminds us of John the Baptist. Like Galileo he ushered in a new age –the age of Jesus. And like Galileo he died in darkness.
- Flor McCarthy in ‘New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies’

"Today we find John the Baptist shut in a prison – full of shadows and forebodings. The Messiah whom he believed he recognized does not behave like a sovereign judge. Nor does he act as the unrelenting executor of God’s judgement against sinners. Confused and helpless, John sends to Jesus to enquire: “Are you really the Messiah whom we await – you who are non-violent, forbearing and forgiving? This question echoes down the centuries and challenges us today more than ever, faced as we are with God’s silence and passivity before our own dechristianized society. We expect answers from the gospel, but instead the gospel seems to pose us further questions! Where we expected to find ready-made solutions, we find instead an invitation to formulate our own. We expect to find miracles only to find the gospel following nature’s process of slow germination. We find it difficult to admit that Christianity is a matter of liberty and love –hence a matter of faith and risk. Like John, we need to enter into our spirit and recognize the real face of God in the countenance of Jesus Christ –the humble and merciful deliverer.”
- Glenstal Sunday Missal

In the second part of the gospel Jesus speaks about John the Baptist praising him as the greatest of the prophets. Jesus paid handsome tributes to John calling him a strong personality and an unbending man of principles. John did not go in for showmanship and did not live a life of comfort and ease. He was single minded in his purpose and devoted his life totally to his mission, which was to prepare the way for Jesus. When his task was done, he moved aside to make way for Jesus. That took greatness. John’s lifestyle as well as his personal integrity, lent credence to his words. He was a living example of what he preached. We can draw inspiration from John’s life. Despite extolling John to the heavens Jesus said that the least in the kingdom of God was greater than John. Why? Because John, great though he was, did not fully comprehend Jesus. John preached a God of divine retribution; Jesus preached a God of divine love. John had his doubts and was confused as to the identity of Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, the Messiah?” was the question troubling him as he lay in the darkness of his dungeon.

Faithful Witness To The Truth
Henry David Thoreau was an American who authored the renowned essay ‘Civil Disobedience’. He championed the freedom of the individual over the law of the land. He distinguished between ‘law’ and ‘right’. He wrote: “What the majority passes is the ‘law’ and what the individual conscience sees is the ‘right’, and what matters most is the ‘right’ not the ‘law’.” Once Thoreau was imprisoned for a night for his refusal to pay poll-tax as a protest against the government’s support of slavery and its unjust war against Mexico presumably in support of slave trade intentions. When he was arrested, he hoped that some of his friends would follow his example and fill the jails, and in this way persuade the government to change its stance on the issue of slavery. In this he was disappointed. Not only did his friends not join him, one friend paid the tax on his behalf and got him released the very next day. When he was in the prison Emerson, another American writer came to visit him. He said to Thoreau: “Thoreau, why are you inside?” And Thoreau replied, “Emerson, Emerson, why are you outside?” Thoreau was a great lover of the truth. He suffered because he spoke the truth and stood for the truth. Emerson said in his obituary of Thoreau, “He was a great speaker and actor of truth.” –John the Baptist too spoke and stood for the truth against the king and paid for it by sacrificing his life.
- John Rose in ‘John’s Sunday Homilies’

Key Question
Some critics acclaim Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the greatest play of the modern world. In this tragedy Hamlet is the prince of Denmark who learns from his father’s ghost that he was murdered by his own brother Claudius, so that Claudius could take his place as king and marry Hamlet’s mother. Intent on avenging his father’s assassination, Hamlet ponders what he should do in a soliloquy: ‘To be or not to be: that’s the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?’ Hamlet’s perplexing question has become a Shakespearean classic. Scripture too poses some key questions about the mysteries of life, and today’s gospel gives us a good example. John the Baptist sends his disciples to Jesus to ask the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or do we look for another?” This is by no means a casual question of identity, but a critical question whose answer affects our entire destiny. As such it is a timeless question, a contemporary question, an ultimate question.
- Albert Cylwicki in ‘His Word Resounds’

1.     In his book Horns and Halos 

Dr. J. Wallace Hamilton tells about one of the weirdest auction sales in history; and it was held in Washington, D.C., in 1926, where 150,000 patented models of old inventions were declared obsolete and placed on the auction block for public auction. Prospective buyers and on-lookers chuckled as item after item was put up for bid; such as a "bed-bug buster" or an "illuminated cat" that was designed to scare away mice. Then there was a device to prevent snoring. It consisted of a trumpet that reached from the mouth to the ear; and was designed to awaken the snorer and not the neighbors. And then there was the adjustable pulpit that could be raised or lowered according to the height of the preacher.

Needless to say, this auction of old patent models was worth at least 150,000 laughs; but if we would look into this situation a little deeper, we would discover that these 150,000 old patent models also represent 150,000 broken dreams. They represented a mountain of disappointments.

It may seem inappropriate to talk about broken dreams and disappointments this close to Christmas. After all, this is the season to be jolly. But it's not jolly for everybody, is it? For those who have lost loved ones this is the loneliest time of the year. And in a world that glorifies materialism, those who are struggling financially may find it to be most disappointing.

Our friend John the Baptist knew about disappointment. John is in prison now and he's looking for a sign - a sign that the long-awaited Messiah has really arrived. That's ironic, don't you think? John the Baptist is the one who first proclaimed his coming. But much has happened to John since we last saw him preaching and baptizing people in the wilderness, and now his heart is cast down.

You'll remember John's message was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This message burned in John's soul...

It is one of those moments parents hope for, even dream about. But it is one of those moments parents are never quite sure will ever come about. It is the moment when you pick up your child from a play date, or birthday party, or sleep-over, and the parent hosting the event declares how well behaved and polite your child has been.

Suddenly all those countless drills and dramas about saying "please" and "thank you" or "take turns" or "share" or "be kind to others" are rewarded. It is good to know that even when you are NOT looking, even when you are NOT "hand's on," that the long arm of loving influence and life-lessons continue to bear good fruit in the world.

Children are not born with good manners. Children are not characterized by congenital civility. One of the most common injuries in toddler day-care centers is of children being bitten by other children. Reinhold Niebuhr, the great 20th century theologian, confessed that an infant, no matter how cute, was infallible proof of the doctrine of original sin.  

It takes years of patience and endurance and constant care to teach toddlers that instead of snarling and snapping over their crackers and crayons, they should willingly share them with others. It is a hard lesson to learn. But it is the first crucial step necessary to create compassionate human beings out of competitive creatures. And it is a lesson we never can stop learning, throughout the length of our lives.  

As the world both mourned the death and celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela last week, there were the musings of those who wondered what more might have been accomplished had he not been imprisoned for those twenty seven years by his government...
2.     Knee Deep In Alligators

Did you ever hear the expression, "When you're knee-deep in alligators and copperheads, it's hard to remember that your primary objective was to clean out the swamp?" That's how I imagine John the Baptist must have felt as he stared at those damp, cold walls of Herod's dungeon, day after day, knowing in his heart that only a miracle would allow him to leave this place alive. Wouldn't you be scared in that predicament? Wouldn't you begin to question your "core beliefs" if you knew that those very beliefs were responsible for your impending doom?

Johnny Dean
3.     Timing Is Everything

I was reading about steamships. It was a wonderful article in which the author said that the dream of a self-propelled ship had been a dream of humankind for hundreds of years. Then one day the time came when it was theoretically possible, but it was still not practically possible. The dream was kept alive for another hundred years or so by inventors and experimenters, some of whom were considered to be eccentric. Later on people looked back and said of them, they were just ahead of their time.

Then the times changed. The next person to come along wasRobert Fulton. It was not so much that Fulton invented the steamboat, but that he just happened to be there when the time was right. As the author wrote, "The inventor's eminence may be more a trick of chronology than anything else, due to being active at the very moment when fruition was possible." It's a wonderful statement. It tells you that timing is everything.

That's what we learn from the Bible. Look at our lesson for this morning. The disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus, and ask, "Are you the one, or do we look for another?" It is a critical question for John. John has preached that the time has come. The Messiah, he said, is about to appear, so repent, get ready, put your lives in order. He has devoted his whole life to the belief that the time has come. But he is in prison now. He is about to lose his head. So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one that we have been waiting for, or do we still look for somebody else?"

Mark Trotter, Collected Sermons,
4.     Who Jesus Really Is

I don't know where life may be defeating you this Advent. I don't know how Jesus may be disappointing you this Advent. But I would suggest to you this Advent that any disillusionment you feel may not necessarily be a bad thing. For what is disillusionment if not, literally, the loss of an illusion? And, in the long run, it is never a bad thing to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.

Did Jesus fail to come when you rubbed the lantern?
Then perhaps Jesus is not a genie.

Did Jesus fail to punish your enemies?
Then perhaps Jesus is not a cop.

Did Jesus fail to make everything run smoothly?
Then perhaps Jesus is not a mechanic.

Over and over again, our disappointments draw us deeper and deeper into
who Jesus really is ... and what Jesus really does.

William A. Ritter, Collected Sermons,
5.     The Controlling Emotion of Fear

H. A. Williams, one of the leading preachers and theologians of the Church of England, titled his autobiography, Someday I'll Find You. That may seem like an unusual title for an autobiography, but if you read the book, as I did when I was a seminary student, it begins to make sense.

You see, there was a period in Dr. Williams' life when he was almost totally incapacitated by phobic anxieties. He was afraid to into the streets and marketplaces, afraid of elevators and escalators, afraid to ride on trains or buses or subways, afraid of flying - you name it, he was afraid of it! Eventually he became so overcome with fear that he was partially paralyzed, and it was only after years of psychoanalysis and treatment that he was able to conquer his fear and go on with his life.

Fear is one of the most controlling emotions of life. Most of us don't like to think of ourselves as fearful people. We prefer to think of ourselves as strong and independent, as though we had the world by the tail and are just waiting for it to say "uncle," as if we were capable of taking on all comers. "I am strong, I am invincible," to borrow a line from one of my all-time least favorite songs. It just ain't so, folks! None of us are "invincible," male or female. Every one of us, at one time or another has felt the cold grip of fear and felt helpless to do anything about it.

Johnny Dean,
6.     We Can't See What Is Before Us, We Are Never Content

In a Peanuts comic strip Lucy is speaking with Linus at the base of a hill. She says, "Someday I'm going over that hill and find the answer to my dreams.... Someday I'm going over that hill and find hope and fulfillment. I think, for me, all the answers to life lie beyond these clouds and over the grassy slopes of that hill!"

Linus removes his thumb from his mouth, points toward the hill, and responds: "Perhaps there's another little kid on the other side of that hill who is looking this way and thinking that all the answers to life lie on this side of the hill." Lucy looks at Linus, then turns toward the hill and yells, "Forget it, kid!"

Brett Blair,
7.     Where Is the Fire?

We get this comforting idea that if we follow the Messiah life will somehow be smoother, or at least all fit together in some "good" way. Then we run smack into the reality that the only guarantee Jesus made to us had to do with the activities that come after this life. In fact, Jesus very clearly expected that his followers would have a harder time getting through this life than those who walked away. But we still have these expectations of a "Savior" and when Jesus doesn't meet them we begin to wonder if he is really who we thought he was. There are thousands of empty church pews that used to be full of people who believed in Jesus Christ. But then he didn't live up to their expectations and they went home. Their families still fought, they still had some frightening decisions to make, and they still couldn't make ends meet on a budget. They began to wonder if they had made a mistake with Jesus.

Maybe that's what happened to John. He said that he had come to baptize with water, and that the one following him would baptize with "fire from heaven." So where was the fire? So far there wasn't even smoke. So far, the Pharisees and Sadducees were still in charge of the faith, and Rome was still in charge of the government. In fact, instead of bringing in the kingdom, Jesus had kept pretty quiet up north while John got himself arrested and thrown into one of Herod's dungeons on a mountaintop down by the Dead Sea. That might make a person ask some questions. Is this any way for a Messiah to behave?

At least I hope that's what happened with John. If John the Baptist, as high up as he ranked, still had some questions, maybe there is room for me and mine.

John B. Jamison, Time's Up!, CSS Publishing Company
8.     Only Jesus

An anonymous author made this striking comparison: "Socrates taught for 40 years, Plato for 50, Aristotle for 40, and Jesus for only 3. Yet the influence of Christ's 3-year ministry infinitely transcends the impact left by the combined 130 years of teaching from these men, who were among the greatest philosophers of all antiquity.

Jesus painted no pictures yet some of the finest paintings of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci received their inspiration from him. Jesus wrote no poetry but Dante, Milton, and scores of the world's greatest poets were inspired by him. Jesus composed no music still Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn reached their highest perfection of melody in the hymns, symphonies, and oratorios they composed in his praise. Every sphere of human greatness has been enriched by this humble Carpenter of Nazareth.

His unique contribution to humanity is the salvation of the soul! Philosophy could not accomplish that. Nor art. Nor literature. Nor music. Only Jesus Christ can break the enslaving chains of sin. He alone can speak peace to the human heart, strengthen the weak, and give life to those who are spiritually dead."

David E. Leininger, Collected Sermons,
9.     Doubt

This is a good sermon opener:

In the semantics of the church, doubt has been a negative word. It is rarely used in a favorable way. Faith, not doubt, is the great word of the church. As I stand here every Sunday morning and look into your up-lifted faces, you look so proper, so content, so believing. You seem to be so certain, so full of faith, and so free of doubt.

But, I have a suspicion that the way you look is not the way you are. Beneath the skins of many of you there is planted the seed of honest doubt. Perhaps you do not share these feelings with anyone; but your doubts are there, and they are real. Your worship does not express your doubts, uncertainties, and skepticism. In facing this situation, all of us at times cry out with the man in the Gospel, "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief." This capacity to doubt can often lead to some of life's most profound questions.

Such was the case with John the Baptizer. His question -"Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"- grew not out of his uncertainty, but out of his doubt. John the Baptizer had heard about the words and deeds of Jesus, but what he had heard did not square with his expectation of the Messiah.

After all, Jesus was born not to royalty, but to a peasant woman. He functioned not as a military ruler, but as a servant. He came not as a judge, but as a forgiving redeemer. He did not bring heavenly condemnation; he brought divine love. He did not associate with the religious establishment, but he went from village to village associating with the rubbish heap of humanity. He spent his time and energy with the least and the lost. He was most concerned with the powerless: the blind and the lame, the lepers and the deaf, and the poor and the out-cast. And Jesus dared to teach that the weak occupied the most important place in the Kingdom of God.

John the Baptizer became confused about the way in which Jesus acted out his messiahship. He had doubts about the validity of his contemporary, Jesus of Nazareth. His skepticism caused him to send one of his buddies to Jesus with the question: "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" Like others in the New Testament, John the Baptizer was not positive. Oh, to be sure, there were fleeting moments of recognition. Mary thought Jesus was a gardener. Those on the road to Emmaus never did recognize him. Even his closest disciples were not certain if he was or was not the true Messiah.

That John the Baptizer had doubts about the messiahship of Jesus is revealed in his question: "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" His question is not clear, either in what is being asked or why. But like all good questions, it shoves the reader into deeper regions of thought.

Joe E. Pennell Jr., From Anticipation to Transfiguration, CSS Publishing Company, 23-24.
10.  It Doesn't Get Any Better

In 1964 my boyhood home burned. We were on our way to spend Christmas with my mother and father, and the word reached us that the flames had engulfed most of the home, although the structure was standing. When we arrived at Texarkana, it was late in the afternoon, and the December sun was already toward the horizon. I entered the house with a cousin to inspect the damage and became aware of the fact that it was difficult to see. I said to her, "I think I shall wait and come back in the morning, when the light will be better." I shall never forget her reply: "Bill," she said, "it doesn't get any better!" At first I did not know what she meant; only later I realized that the fire had brought to the inside panes of the windows a kind of smoke and resin film which very effectively shut out most of the light, even when the sun was shining brightly.

Those words have been burned into my consciousness ever since...
From Fr. Tony Kadavil's Collection:

1: Unfinished Play:
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American writer. When he died in 1864 he had on his desk the outline of a play he never got a chance to finish. The play centered around a person who never appeared on stage. Everyone talked about him. Everyone dreamed about him. Everyone waited for his arrival. But he never came. All kinds of minor characters described him. They told everybody what he would do. But the main character never appeared. –The Old Testament is something like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s play. It too ended without the main character’s putting in an appearance. Everyone talked about the Messiah, everyone awaited his arrival. But he never came in the Old Testament period. In today’s reading, we hear Isaiah describing what the Messiah would do by bringing salvation to all mankind. Today’s Gospel tells us that when the real Messiah came, even the last prophet and the Messiah’s herald, John the Baptist, could not believe that he was the expected Messiah. (Mark Link S. J. in Sunday Homilies)  

2: Gaudete Sunday smile:
A number of years ago, a young college student was working as an intern at his college’s Museum of Natural History. One day while working at the cash register in the gift shop, he saw an elderly couple come in with a little girl in a wheelchair. As he looked more closely at this girl, he saw that she was kind of perched on her chair. The student realized that she had no arms or legs, just a head, neck and torso. She was wearing a little white dress with red polka dots. As the couple wheeled her up to the checkout counter, he turned his head toward the girl and gave her a wink. Meanwhile, he took the money from her grandparents and looked back at the girl, who was giving him the cutest and the largest smile he had ever seen. All of a sudden her handicap was gone, and all that the college student saw was this beautiful girl, whose smile just melted him and almost instantly gave him a completely new sense of what life is all about. She took him from being an unhappy college student and brought him into her world - a world of smiles, love and warmth. With the lighting of the third rose candle of the Advent Wreath among the purple candles and the priest’s wearing the rose vestments, we are reminded that we are called to live with joy in our world of sorrows and pain. (Fr. James Farfaglia)  

3:  Michael Jordan playing with country kids?
One evening at the country park, a group of teenage boys was playing basketball. A tall, bald, African-American man strolled up. The man watched for a few minutes, then asked if he might play with them. He made three point jump shots and lay-ups and hooks with the ease of a pro. The stranger played for about fifteen minutes with the teenagers, gave them some pointers, thanked them for letting him play, and disappeared. The stranger didn't tell the teenagers his name. They'd seen Michael Jordan on TV, and he looked like him. But could this stranger who came to a remote village actually be Michael Jordan? In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist asks the same kind of question about Jesus. Could this gentle Jesus with a band of fishermen as his disciples be the real Messiah, the long awaited Anointed One of God, while the Messiah he heralded was a firebrand?