The Light

Advent Sunday 3

Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11
Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Two themes intertwine in this week’s Liturgy of the Word. It’s the moment in Advent when we rejoice that the Lord is at hand and also commit ourselves to preparing for that coming.

The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
for the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up hearts that are broken;
to proclaim liberty to captives,
freedom to those in prison;
to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.

‘I exult for joy in the Lord,
my soul rejoices in my God,
for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation,
he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity,
like a bridegroom wearing his wreath,
like a bride adorned in her jewels.
‘For as the earth makes fresh things grow,
as a garden makes seeds spring up,
so will the Lord make both integrity and praise
spring up in the sight of the nations.’

Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11

The voice we hear at the beginning of this week’s liturgy is familiar. I grew up singing these words in the popular folk hymn: God’s Spirit is in my Heart. Isaiah’s words offer a prophecy of hope and encouragement to a people who were shrouded in the darkness of disappointment and confusion. Imagine being exiled from your town or city and returning a generation later to find rubble where your cherished landmarks once stood. Imagine too that the building that represents all your hopes and dreams lies ruined. This is how the exiles felt when they returned to Jerusalem and saw the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was their assurance that God would always be with them. It is into this darkness that Isaiah speaks the words of his prophecy. All of Israel’s fragile hope can now find new strength in the person who is anointed to act and bring about God’s reign.

The Gospel text from The Prologue of John’s Gospel is a small gear change from the texts that we have heard from Mark in the two previous Sundays. Mark’s style is brief and the pace fast, whereas John’s Prologue moves at a slower pace, with space for repetition and the poetic unfolding of his major themes of Light, Life, Love and Glory. It’s into that poetic flow that today’s Gospel text comes a little abruptly:

A man came, sent by God.
His name was John.
He came as a witness,
as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.

He was not the light,
only a witness to speak for the light.

This is how John appeared as a witness. When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ he not only declared, but he declared quite openly, ‘I am not the Christ.’ ‘Well then,’ they asked ‘are you Elijah?’ ‘I am not’ he said. ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We must take back an answer to those who sent us. What have you to say about yourself?’ So John said, ‘I am, as Isaiah prophesied:

A voice that cries in the wilderness:
Make a straight way for the Lord.’

Now these men had been sent by the Pharisees, and they put this further question to him, ‘Why are you baptising if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?’ John replied, ‘I baptise with water; but there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.’ This happened at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

There are no details of camel hair and locusts to arouse our curiosity in this text. Instead we have the stark message that John the Baptist is not the light. The most important thing about him is that he points away from himself to the LIGHT. It’s possible to see in these verses the figure of John as a model disciple. John stands right back and points the way for Christ. I think the text can also teach us something about humility and what it means to fulfill our vocations. In practice it’s actually rather hard to stand right back and do something totally at the service of another.

Humility often gets a rather bad press as a virtue. I am sure that many of us have had an experience of being told that we ‘should be humble’ and then assuming that this means that we can’t have an opinion or stand up for ourselves. In the Benedictine tradition our Rule contains a lengthy chapter on the practice of humility. It’s not an easy read as a monastic. Perhaps one of the most helpful insights I have had into St Benedict’s seemingly uncompromising teaching is from Dom Gregory van de Klej, the former prior of the monks at Turvey. He suggests that growing in humility is a journey and our goal is to be able to live in perfect love. We won’t achieve this overnight, but we can reasonably expect to have made some progress by the time of our monastic Golden Jubilee. This gives me hope..

We don’t always see our own progress on our faith journey. It’s easy to see the times where we have been rather lukewarm and not managed to do what we hoped we could. In the person of John the Baptist we have a model of someone who was bold, uncompromising AND humble. I think that he has much to teach us this Advent.