The third Sunday of Advent used to be called Gaudete (be joyful) Sunday. It provided a mid-term break within a period of austerity or penance in preparation for Christmas. Advent is no longer celebrated as a penitential period, but rather as a reflective time of expectation and hope. The invitation to rejoice nonetheless remains part of the Advent liturgy. It is certainly present in the first reading: ‘ the desert shall rejoice and bloom …’ (Isaiah 35:1-6, 10).
Today’s gospel passage is full of questions. First John sends his disciples to Jesus with a question. Jesus responds by directing them to the evidence. He adds a comment about those who take no offence at him: they are blessed. He then turns to the crowds with a series of rhetorical questions about their motivation for going out to John in the desert. His words to the crowds conclude with an identification of John as God’s prophet and messenger, his own precursor. He pays an extraordinary tribute to John, but leaves the reader puzzling about the final statement: the least in the kingdom is greater than John.
John’s imprisonment is a sobering reminder of what can happen to those who are faithful to their mission. As the Matthean Jesus will attest, John is no reed shaken by the wind. This could well be a subtle reference to Herod Antipas’ choice of the reed as a symbol on the coins commemorating the founding of Tiberias. Herod has arrested and imprisoned John and later will have him put to death on specious grounds. John is not fickle like Herod, but steadfast and strong.
The reader knows that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah or Anointed of God. John is checking it out. He clearly has contact with his disciples whom he sends to Jesus with the question: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Is Advent over or not? The answer to John’s question is to be found in what they hear and see. The restorative and healing activity of Jesus is realising the Messianic dream of the prophet Isaiah (first reading). In a sense, Advent never ends: the women and children brought into our own cities as sex slaves can attest to this. We might well pray: ‘Strengthen our weak hands, and make firm our feeble knees’ in the face of such challenges.