The National Catholic Review
Third Sunday of Advent (B), Dec. 11, 2011
He was not the light, but came to testify to the light (Jn 1:8)

The beginning of John’s Gospel introduces John the Baptist as one who came to testify to the light. Much of what John says in these early chapters highlights his insistence that he is merely one who points to the true light. He is not the Messiah, not the Prophet, not Elijah; just a voice crying out in the desert (1:20-23), a best man who rejoices at decreasing so that Christ the groom may increase (3:29-30).

This sounds like a good posture for ministry. We point to Jesus, and our witness is never about us; it is about God’s love and about experiencing his saving grace. A diocesan personnel director told me that it is troubling to see a parish that finds its pastor indispensable. It means the pastor’s staff and community are not empowered enough. It also means that it is not sufficiently clear to the people that only God is indispensable. The pastor is not the light; Christ is our light. It is not about us. It is about him.

Here is an interesting irony: When people try to make it all about themselves, they make loss inevitable. That is, they undermine the very possibility of getting what they need. Few people—and none of the smart ones—gravitate to those who wear figurative versions of a neon sign that says “Love Me” or “Respect Me.” Narcissists who make it all about themselves remain bottomless pits of hopeless begging. In contrast, those who are most lovable and whom we most respect live lives that are fundamentally focused on others. We love those who love us for us and not to meet their neediness. And we respect those who speak and live the truth itself and not what they think others might want to hear.

There is a Hindu story of a holy woman who entered a square and sat down with a bowl. She put in dirt and then added water and stirred. Periodically she put her hand in and took out a gold nugget. After a while, she was accosted by a merchant who wanted to buy her “magic” bowl. She assured him there was no magic and gave it to him. Daily he stirred dirt and water but found only mud. One day he discovered her walking again through the square. “There is a trick that you withheld,” he challenged. “No trick,” she assured. “But you only get the gold when you renounce all greed.”

We are full of light only when we are illuminating Christ the light. So it is not our light that is important, but our witness to the light has everything to do with being infused by that light. Perhaps this is why Jesus will even report that John was “a burning and shining lamp.” Or as John Scotus Erigena once wrote, “He was the lamp burning in the night from the brilliant light that filled the whole world.”

Today is Gaudete Sunday, or Rejoice Sunday. It is the first of three types of joy celebrated in our liturgical seasons. This is the joy of anticipation. There is also Laetare Sunday as an oasis in Lent and Jubilate Sunday as a highlight in the Easter season. Gaudete is the same imperative Paul uses in our second reading (in Greek, chairete).

Paul commands the Thessalonians to “rejoice always.” The only other time Paul commands this is in Phil 4:4. What is fascinating is that the Thessalonians experienced a good deal of suffering for their faith (see 2 Thes 1:4). And when Paul writes to the Philippians he was imprisoned and deathly sick. Clearly, rejoicing is not some vapid command to repress suffering and just think happy thoughts. Instead, it has to do with carrying the lamp lit by the light that fills the world, confirmed by God in the night while awaiting the blazing dawn. For it is all about his light. And the more we know this, the more we are illumined.

Peter Feldmeier is the Murray/Bacik Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo.

Readings: 
Is 61:1-11; Ps Lk 1:46-54; Thes 5:16-24; Jn 1:6-8, 19-28
Prayer: 

• Think about the times you were closest to God.

• Consider this: Was your ego inflated or humbled?

• Who are the two people you respect the most? Why?