Third Sunday of Advent: Faced with a Paradox

December 17, 2023  |  Sr. Christin Tomy, OP |  Today’s Readings

“I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul.” (Isaiah 61:10)


One word echoes throughout the readings this Gaudete Sunday: rejoice! 

Isaiah “rejoices heartily in the Lord.” In the psalm, we pray along with Mary, “my soul rejoices in my God.” And Paul urges the Thessalonians to, among other things, “rejoice always.” In each of these circumstances, rejoicing is tied with the social circumstances that will herald and/or accompany the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah: healing of the brokenhearted, liberation of captives, abundance for the hungry, and an overall eruption of justice. This indeed is cause for rejoicing!

But then we get to the Gospel, where instead of rejoicing, we encounter John the Baptist in serious conversation with some priests and Levites. They question him about his identity, and he answers that he is the voice “crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’” This gravitas is consistent with our other gospel depictions of a camel hair-wearing, locust-eating, repentance-preaching John. Not exactly the portrait of a jovial guy! Yet this is the same John who “leaped for joy” in his mother’s womb when she encountered the pregnant Mary. 

So how do we square these messages? How are we to understand the simultaneous Advent summons to repent and rejoice?

A lens of restorative justice might be helpful here. Restorative justice understands that when wrongs have been done, the slate cannot simply be wiped clean. The process of repentance, truth-telling, grieving, and making amends allows for a new way of being, one that is intended for the healing and liberation of all parties involved. It seems a parallel exists in our emotional and spiritual lives, too: it’s hard to be people open to joy if we ignore or close ourselves off from more difficult emotions, like grief, sorrow, pain, and anger.

John the Baptist understands these paradoxes; he knows that there’s some difficult work to be done to prepare for the Messiah. His invitation then is our invitation now: to “make a way” this Advent, both in our hearts in the world. In our prayer and contemplation, in our relationships and our actions, how will we make amends and make a way?

It may require much of us, but we’re hardly alone. Jesus came into a world rife with injustice, and he continues to come into our world now. This indeed is cause for rejoicing!

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