First Reading Commentary
The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as "Gaudete Sunday" – "gaudete" is a Latin word meaning "rejoice". Advent is actually considered a penitential season which originally involved a forty day fast leading up to Christmas. It wasn't until the ninth century that Advent was reduced to a four-week season. The penitential atmosphere of Advent is deliberately sidetracked on the Third Sunday because we are getting ever so near to the birth of our Savior and the liturgy calls us to rejoice, thus the Church changes the color of its vestments on that Sunday.
This First Reading, of course, prophesies the coming of Christ and is gushing with rejoicing. When you consider a desert and parched land in a biblical text, it's normal to think of the area of the Middle East and most especially that which was inhabited by the people of Israel. Thus the exultation of the desert is referring to the Jews. The steppe, however, is generally a grass covered area of land – not what you would normally think of in the biblical history of the Jewish people. Thus the steppe rejoicing and blooming refers to the Gentiles and their eventual conversion to Christ.
Lebanon is considered glorious most likely because of its cedar trees. Cedar was used in the building of sacred temples and sanctuaries. The prophet Ezekiel tells us that the cedars of Lebanon had fair branches, were full of leaves and of a high stature (cf. Ezekiel 31:3). Cedar wood was also used in purification rituals.
When trying to understand the splendor of Carmel, Gregory of Nyssa writes: "Elijah lived on Mount Carmel, which is celebrated and illustrious above all because of the virtue and reputation of him who lived there." And Sharon's splendor likely refers to its fertility as Sharon is a plain famous for its vegetation, its large oak trees and its beauty due to the floral landscaping.
In the New Testament a paralytic named Aeneas was healed by Saint Peter; and when the inhabitants of Sharon saw him, they were converted unto the Lord (cf. Acts 9:33-35). These are all images of beauty which the prophet Isaiah is using to try and describe as best he can the glory and splendor of the coming of the Lord.
What follows in the text are words of healing: Hands being strengthened, knees made firm, hearts are strengthened by abolishing fear, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap and the mute will sing. Thus Isaiah prophesies that the Messiah will be a healer and most importantly, the Messiah is our God Who comes to save us.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his Encyclical titled, "Spes Salvi" writes about a type of healing that comes from hope which comes through prayer. He writes: "A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer. When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God. When there is no longer anyone to help me deal with a need or expectation that goes beyond the human capacity for hope, He can help me. When I have been plunged into complete solitude, if I pray I am never totally alone."
This Reading calls to us to be confident in the love our God has for us; and when we can push aside all obstacles that hinder our trust in Him, then our lives become a perpetual cause to "Gaudete in Domino semper" (Rejoice in the Lord always ~ Philippians 4:4).
Second Reading Commentary
If you've ever experienced any form of suffering - and who hasn't - then this Letter of Saint James is for you. It is because of our sufferings that he exhorts us to be patient. The word patience in itself suggests that there will surely be something to endure or to bear. Suffering comes in many forms and degrees. The farmer's patience in waiting for fruit bears fruit and impacts others. If the farmer were impatient about waiting on his fruit, then there would be less fruit to be consumed.
Our own level of patience impacts others. Scripture tells us that God is our patience and our hope (cf. Psalm 70 :5). The farmer needs to wait for the early and the late rains. This is completely dependent upon God. The same is true for us; and only God knows why His time is more beneficial for us than our time.
The Greek text exhorts us to establish our hearts because the coming of the Lord is near. Establish is a good word to use because it conjures up the image of an immovable foundation in which our heart can be placed. That is an edifying image for understanding patience. But again, we have to know that the foundation is God and without Him as our foundation, our heart will rest on sand and when the storms come, patience will be washed away.
Generally, when the train comes off the track, we're all pretty good at pointing fingers as to who is to blame. Saint James warns us, however, that the Judge is standing before the gates. In the ancient languages the word "gates" is more precisely translated as "door". In the first book of the bible God said to Cain: "If you have done evil, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door?" (Genesis 4:7). Saint James offers the examples of the Old Testament prophets. They waited for the Messiah – we wait for His return but also have the privilege and joy of recalling every year in the liturgy that great day in salvation history when God became Man. Our Savior calls us to take up our cross daily and follow Him. It's a tall order but let us recall the angel Gabriel's words to the Blessed Virgin Mary: "No word shall be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37).
In our spiritual journey we're all eventually faced with a similar question that Saint John the Baptist asks: "Jesus, are You really Who You say You are?" Some Christians deal with this question more times than others but the question itself is not a bad thing. In fact, during His Ministry Jesus Himself presents that very question to us (cf. Mark 8:29). In our walk of faith there's really no reason to not treat this question like any other question brought forth in normal conversation: Ask the question, then kind of get out of the way of ourselves and wait silently for the answer.
Before Jesus asks that question of us, however, He asks something else first: "Who do men say that I am?" (Mark 8:27). That question is frequently answered for us in various television documentaries and books which seem to doubt the Divinity of Jesus. Sometimes it's the influence of those very types of shows and books that lead us to ask Who Jesus is and other times it may be prompted by some form of suffering or just at present going through a rough time. Our faith needs to be challenged in order to strengthen and grow.
John the Baptist dedicated his life to proclaiming the coming of the Messiah; and when He finally did arrive to begin His Ministry, John ended up in prison. That is faith being challenged. With John's experience in dealing with human corruption, he may have been a little surprised by Christ's gentle way and was expecting from our Lord demonstrative denouncements of human institutions. Jesus answers John's question by citing examples of physical miracles. John the Baptist was a prophet and a man of faith, therefore his questioning of Jesus was not likely based on a lack of faith, but rather to satisfy the curiosity of his own followers as whether or not to follow Jesus now that John has been imprisoned. As a prophet, John may have already known that his arrest marked the end of his calling, the end of the Old Testament prophets and marked a new beginning which would have eternal value.
How has Jesus answered your question of Who He is? He is the Savior of the world, and so, what has He said or done in your life that offers assurance to your own convictions of Who Jesus is? Certainly, individual reflection will produce various answers but in this season of hope amidst all the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, it's good to sit quietly and reflect on what Jesus has done and continues to do in your own life. There's a lot of noise pollution in the shopping malls and yet what Christmas celebrates is God becoming a Baby and entering into the world in the stillness of the night.
As Jesus begins to speak to the crowds about John, it's not so much John's personal sanctity that our Lord is praising, although he certainly was a very holy man, but Christ is pointing out where John fits in according to the divine plan which he so faithfully carried out. As our Lord proclaims, it was not the scenery of the desert with its reeds swayed by the wind; nor was John a well-dressed man, therefore, many were convinced that John was a prophet and it is for this reason that they journeyed into the desert to hear him preach. And Jesus confirms that John was indeed a prophet, and more than a prophet. He was a prophet because he proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, and more than a prophet because he saw the Messiah which was a privilege not given to any other prophet. Although John had many followers, it was probably a shock to all present to hear Christ proclaim him as the greatest prophet of all; and yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Most likely the "least" is a reference to ordinary people like you and I. John, as great as he was, was slain before Christ's Crucifixion and therefore did not witness nor have any knowledge of the Gospel in its fullness; and we, the children of the post-Resurrection, have been blessed with this knowledge.
Saint Paul writes: "When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption. As proof that you are children, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying out, 'Abba, Father!' Therefore, you are no longer a servant but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God" (Galatians 4:4-7). Adoption, therefore, is greater than servitude.