Is the joy awakened by the imminent birth of the Redeemer for everyone, without distinction, or only for those who open their heart to His transforming love?


Gospel of Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday)

A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.

19 And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Christ.” 21 So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” 23 He said: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’” as Isaiah the prophet said. 24 Some Pharisees were also sent. 25 They asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water; but there is One among you Whom you do not recognize, 27 the One Who is coming after me, Whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing (Jn 1:6-8;19-28).

I – Joy at the Imminent Coming of the Saviour

The Church, as a divine institution founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Head of this Mystical Body, possesses His own wisdom and acts in all things with measure, number, and weight. Accordingly, the Church designates two Sundays of the year to bring joy amidst penance: the Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, and the Fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Lætare Sunday.

The first receives its name from the opening word of the entrance Antiphon, taken from the Letter of St. Paul the Apostle to the Philippians: “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Dominus enim prope est – Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is at hand” (Phil 4:4-5).

John the Baptist responds to the envoys of the Jews – Library of Yuso Monastery, San Millán de la Cogolla (Spain)

The prospect of the end diminishes suffering

Anyone who has lived with persons experiencing either physical or moral suffering knows how much harder it is for them to bear if they do not know when it will end. Were they to receive assurance that the pain would cease at a specific moment, much of the torment would vanish. Similarly, scientific studies confirm that joy prolongs life and, conversely, giving in to sadness shortens it.

Something analogous is noted in the Gaudete Sunday Liturgy – the most important of Advent – whose principal objective is to furnish the lively hope that at last, our Redeemer is about to be born, and to help us more deeply comprehend the Come, Lord Jesus! repeated over the course of these four weeks. Today we cross a milestone in the penitential ascent and are filled with joy at the coming of the Expectation of all Nations, which we almost commemorate prematurely. Accordingly, the Church celebrates this Sunday with rejoicing, with flowers, musical instruments and rose-coloured vestments, petitioning in the Collect: “Enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.”1

The voice that cries out in the desert, from the Gospel of St. John, urges us to make straight “the way of the Lord,” to change our mentality and to be filled with His spirit. But the Church wants us to do this joyfully, for the progress made in renouncing a bad situation and improving can only be cause for rejoicing. St. Thomas2 explains that joy is the result of love and, therefore, whoever loves has joy. Charity, in turn, leads to the ardent desire to possess that which inspires love; we await the coming of one who is the Being par excellence, God Incarnate, our Redeemer.

It only remains to discover whether there is a condition for obtaining that joy which is inseparable from His coming, or if it is destined to all, without restriction. The Gospel provides the answer.

II – The Contrast between the Joy of the Good and the Confusion of the Wicked

St. John wrote his Gospel in the last decade of the first century, a time already marked by the presence of Gnostics, Ebionites, and Judaizers in the nascent Church, who attempted to deform the true vision of the Old Testament and even the Revelation brought by Our Lord Jesus Christ, particularly through the denial of His divine personality. While touting themselves as Christians, they actually wanted to corrupt others with their ideas and to proselytize evil.

St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist – Episcopal Museum of Vic (Spain)

The Evangelist begins his narrative with strong logic, through a prologue in which he categorically affirms – as one who lived with the Son of God Incarnate – that Our Lord is fully Man and fully God, and presents a witness to confirm this doctrine with authoritative argument.

The sudden emergence of an Eliatic prophet

A man named John was sent from God.

This witness is St. John the Baptist. There was no man in all of Israel at that time who enjoyed greater prestige. Gifted with a strong personality that could not be countered, he was held in high regard – indeed, he was beyond suspicion. Thus, his authority ratifies the daring Christological affirmations of the Beloved Disciple at the opening of this Gospel. And mention is therefore made of the Precursor even before the conclusion of the prologue, in verse 18.

In Scripture, the unexpected appearance of Elijah is described using the word “arose” (cf. Sir 48:1), and something similar can be understood here, giving the impression that no one knew who John was, or whence he came, only that he was “sent from God.” The prophet emerges suddenly, raised up by God in a sui generis manner: clothed in camel skin and eating locusts and wild honey.

St. John the Baptist’s sudden entrance onto the scene, and his preaching, made him a controversial figure in Jewish society. He shook up the country from one end to the other, mobilized the population, made consciences tremble and aroused perplexity and doubt with regard to his identity. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he did not exercise his mission in Jerusalem, but chose the banks of the Jordan River, where the influence of the teachers of the Law, the Pharisees and the other Jewish authorities was less felt. It was also a juncture where caravans passed. Remaining there over an extended period, his teachings were spread among the entire Chosen People.

Many spoke of him, and a series of conjectures soon circulated about the Precursor. Some, impressed with the qualities of this man of God, said that he was the Messiah; others, based on the prophecies that spoke of the return of Elijah, saw him as the great prophet who had returned from his mysterious retreat; finally, there were those who believed him to be the Prophet who was to come (cf. Dt 18:15).

God loves mediation and establishes mediators

He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.

In these two verses, the Evangelist emphasizes that St. John the Baptist was not the light, but that he testified to another light. We can envision the Precursor as a man filled with ardour, awaiting the One he announced.

Here we see that Providence loves the principle of mediation and sends intercessors to guide the people toward the graces He wants to pour out. The Angelic Doctor teaches: “Certain men are ordained by God in a special way, so that they bear witness to God not only naturally by their existence, but also spiritually by their good works. Hence all holy men are witnesses to God inasmuch as God is glorified among men by their good works. […] But those who not only participate in God’s gifts in themselves by acting well through the grace of God, but also spread them to others by their teaching, influencing and encouraging others, are in a more special way witnesses to God. […] And so John came as a witness in order to spread to others the gifts of God and to proclaim His praise.”3 These men serve as instruments, and, in a sense, as a pretext for the communication of these graces, which Providence grants according to what they say, do or indicate. For some, this will be in a sufficient way, for others, superabundant; for some, cooperative, for others, efficacious, but to all He gives grace through the mediator that He establishes, so that people will convert.

The preaching of St. John the Baptist, by Luca Giordano – Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art, Vitoria (Spain)

Uncertainty among the authorities of Israel

19 And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?”

St. John wrote his Gospel with the goal, among others, of refuting the calumnies and deviations of the synagogue leaders, enemies of the incipient Christian religion. Accordingly he established within it a clear distinction between Our Lord and His disciples, on one hand, and the members of the leading class of Israel, on the other. He refers to the latter, and particularly to the Pharisees, in this verse, with the term “the Jews.”4

Jerusalem was shaken. All the talk among the general population with regard to St. John was a cause of concern for the Sanhedrin – composed of Israel’s elites, determined to maintain control over the establishment and not to relinquish their hold on the corresponding grassroots in prevailing public opinion. An aura of mystery surrounded this man who preached on the banks of the Jordan, in a setting where it was not easy to control him, or to apprehend him for interrogation in the Temple, as it would have been in the Holy City.

According to their mindset, it seemed clear that if St. John baptized, he did so because he was the Messiah, or Elijah or the Prophet. In general, the Jews believed that the expected Messiah would open magnificent horizons and bring the Jewish people supremacy over all other nations. They did not preclude the possibility that He would come baptizing, but it would be a baptism of merely human glory and salvation. Elijah, as a figure set apart among all the prophets also had the right to baptize. The same could be said of the aforementioned Prophet. Which of the three was John? Dread seized them, since this altogether mysterious personage had not come from their school. Therefore, their intelligence went to work to discover his origin, his goals, and the reason for those gestures, that behaviour and symbology.

St. John’s preaching opposes the Sanhedrin’s plans

In effect, their idea of the Messiah did not correspond to St. John the Baptist. He “followed a precisely opposite path. He affirmed that the sons of Abraham could even rise up from the stones; he promised neither dominions nor supremacy; he did not bear or call to arms; he did not occupy himself in politics; he worked no miracles; he was poor and naked; but, in exchange, his whole preaching was summed up in a moral admonishment.”5 He taught a series of principles that obliged those who accepted him as a messenger from God to change their lives. And this was precisely what the Pharisees, whose doctrine was opposed to that of the Forerunner, did not want. Nevertheless, they thought that perhaps this was merely the first phase of the introduction of the Messiah and, once he had acquired political power and influence, with control of public opinion, he would declare himself in a manner according to their wishes. Thus, it was advantageous to act diplomatically to keep this man on their side.

Therefore, they resolved to dispatch a commission, formed of the most competent among Israel’s religious leaders, to ascertain exactly who he was and thereby decide upon what stance to take in his regard. They consequently needed accurate information. Undoubtedly they were nervous, for if St. John’s mission was official, their eminence would be compromised. Was it not strange, then, that they were not abreast of his coming and had not discovered him until that moment? In fact, they should have had some idea that they were living in the time of the Messiah, for some years earlier, when Herod had asked the chief priests and scribes where He was to be born (cf. Mt 2:3-6), they had provided the correct answer, proof that they carefully studied and interpreted Scripture, and this Expected One was a subject of conversation among them. And it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Holy Spirit had even afforded them insight with regard to the proximity of the Saviour’s coming.

Another reason leading them not to take St. John the Baptist’s presence lightly was that, after centuries devoid of prophetism, Israel was keenly eager to hear a voice proclaiming tidings of the future Messiah. God Himself placed this appetite within them, making them understand that His coming was imminent. If animals have unerring instincts which give them advance notice as to certain natural phenomena, with even more reason do there exist instincts of the human soul that enable man to discern the supernatural. It is difficult to imagine that Our Lord Jesus Christ Who was in their midst, already 30 years old, had not been announced by innumerable signs. Would a God Who became incarnate to live in society have no effect upon nature? It is obvious that the presence of a Man who does not possess human personality, but is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and that of His Mother, a creature without original sin, must have exercised a powerful influence over the Chosen People, giving rise to events, imponderable effects, restlessness, longings and suspense, which created a growing expectation.

St. John the Baptist rebuking the Pharisees – Library of Yuso Monastery, Millán de la Cogolla (Spain)

Either control, or destroy…

The prevailing climate around the Jordan was strained, due to the clash between the established power, in its full force, and one man who had appeared abruptly. Let us bear in mind that a supernatural act carried out with total faith and conviction attains three results: it causes joy in Heaven; it causes hell to shudder; and it also has repercussions on earth, whereby the good souls feel fortified, the mediocre become more confused and the wicked grow in bitterness, distress, and insecurity. The latter was the effect John the Baptist provoked in the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea surely experienced an increased desire for the good, but the ruling elite had for some time been fearful, restless and perturbed, much like one who has his hands raised to impress the public, when he notices that someone is rummaging through his pocket to take his money. He is flummoxed, because he wants to put his hands in his pocket and yet is held back for fear of looking ridiculous.

Being the perverse men that they were, the members of the Sanhedrin would have feigned to accept John if he were the Messiah, Elijah or a prophet, in order to attempt to enter into league with him. They would seek to lure him over to their side so as to gain control over him and prevent him from acting in detriment to their interests. If they did not succeed, they would wage war against him, seek to silence him or even kill him, as their forefathers had done with many prophets through the centuries and as, within a few years, they would do to Jesus. Who knows if the eventual imprisonment of St. John the Baptist, ordered by Herod, had not been contrived by hidden hands…

A man of meticulous restitution

20 He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Christ.”

This encounter between the delegation of the representatives of the true religion and St. John the Baptist provided the latter with the opportunity to officially affirm that which he had never stated so clearly until then.

In narrating the testimony of the Precursor, the Evangelist intentionally uses two verbs: “admitted and did not deny,” one affirmative and the other negative. One would have been sufficient, but he wishes to emphasize that there was an admittance, that is, a solemn declaration, an expression of his faith, and, at the same time, St. John “did not deny the truth, for he said he was not the Christ; otherwise he would have denied the truth. […] Thus he did not deny the truth, for however great he might have been considered, he did not become proud, usurping for himself the honour of another.”6

Over the course of history, we repeatedly observe that man, when placed before two spiritual values, one greater and the other lesser, tends to opt for the inferior one. For example, when Gideon defeated the 135 thousand Midianites with only three hundred men (cf. Jgs 7–8:12), the Hebrews offered him the golden ornaments taken as spoils of the battle, and with them Gideon made an elaborate ephod, which he displayed in his city, Ophrah. A short time later the Jews fell into idolatry and adored this object (cf. Jgs 8:25-27). It is the law of spiritual gravity.

Therefore, before being explicitly questioned about his mission, St. John completely eliminates the notion of his being the Messiah. In fact, all those who are sent to announce one who is superior to them feel true trepidation – imparted by God and the result of honesty of soul – that they will be mistaken for the one they announce. “This is the duty of the honest servant, not only to not claim his master’s honour for himself, but also to reject it when offered to him by the multitude.”7 In St. John, this state of soul was a sixth sense; it did not so much as occur to him to pose as the Christ.

We can easily imagine the Precursor saying this with joy, for in the depth of his soul there was hope! He knew, by mystical inspiration, that the public manifestation of the Messiah – Whom he had baptized shortly before – was close at hand. The growing commotion along banks of the Jordan that had caught the attention of the authorities, prompting them to interrogate him, was an indication that the time for the Saviour’s revelation had arrived.

It is relevant to examine a detail here. St. John the Baptist represents tradition as a whole; he symbolizes, as in a synthesis, the Old Testament and, as such, comes announcing the advent of the New. At the moment being recounted in the Evangelist’s narrative, St. John was speaking after having baptized Our Lord. The following day, seeing Him approach, he would say to his disciples: “Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of Whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man Who ranks before me, for He was before me.’ I myself did not know Him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that He might be revealed to Israel” (Jn 1:29-31). He would speak, then, of the Messiah, not as a prophet who says “It will happen!”, but rather as one who proclaims: “It has already happened!” The discernment of the One Who is the Lamb of God is precisely the link between the Old and the New Testament.

St. John the Baptist, by Martin Bernat – Lleida Museum (Spain)

Who exactly was this man?

21 So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”

Those sent from Jerusalem believed that St. John would portray himself as the Messiah, but his first reply baffled them. They pressed on with their questioning. The Precursor had such renown that it was natural for the priests and Levites to ask him if he were Elijah. They did this with some unease, for Elijah was the man who ordered the earth to open up, fire to come down from Heaven, and made the rain cease (cf. Sir 48:3), etc. His negative reply surely elicited relief but this, in turn, gave way to growing uncertainty, for John was already a mythical figure, a man who instilled fear and, undoubtedly, had a powerful and commanding voice. It was possible that he was the Prophet; in this case, they would ask for a sign, according to Jewish custom. He was not the Prophet par excellence – that is, Our Lord Jesus Christ – but indeed a prophet.

St. John does not bend to the interests of evil

22 So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?”

The answers of the Precursor showed the emissaries that it was no use wasting time on diplomatic tactics, as it would not be easy to establish a friendship in order to win him over to their cause. They would have preferred that St. John declare himself the Messiah, for this would serve as a pretext to invite him to be part of the Sanhedrin. Had he been an astute politician, he would have made a brilliant career with the support of the authorities who would have generated propaganda to promote him, and would have provided him with the money and the prestige necessary to become the most esteemed and lauded man in the nation. Now, if he was not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet, then who was he? They almost grovelled for an explanation, for they had to return with information to prevent their mission from being viewed as a failure. But they perceived that they would leave empty-handed and foresaw the consequences that this would bring them when they returned to their leaders.

Declaration of the Precursor and call to conversion

23 He said: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’” as Isaiah the prophet said.

If the first words of the Precursor baffled them, these only served to intensify their bewilderment. They were already fearful because of John the Baptist’s great influence in Israel, which had shaken up public opinion. Crowds went to hear the preaching of St. John and to receive baptism, and afterwards amended their lives. It was the grace of the Holy Spirit touching souls. Furthermore, the Pharisees knew the Scriptures, and understood the meaning of the oracle of Isaiah (cf. Is 40:3) – “I am the voice that cries in the desert” – , which clearly indicated that before the appearance of the Messiah, a preacher would emerge from the desert. In making such a reference, St. John was essentially saying, and no one dared to contradict him: “I am the one foretold by Isaiah!” And this Precursor also spoke to them of conversion: “Make straight the way of the Lord,” in other words, “change your mentality to receive Him.”

For the wicked, the woe had just begun…

24 Some Pharisees were also sent. 25 They asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water; but there is One among you Whom you do not recognize, 27 the One Who is coming after me, Whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Always preoccupied with external rituals, the Pharisees questioned John regarding his baptism, knowing that a purifying bath had been foretold by several prophets (cf. Is 1:16; Ez 36:25; Zec 13:1). That the Messiah, Elijah or the Prophet “would institute new rites, was nothing peculiar; as envoys of God, they could act according to His orders.”8 But if St. John was not one of these, why did he baptize? And once again, the unexpected response of the Precursor caused perplexity among the members of the retinue! It is the Holy Spirit Who speaks by the lips and the voice of St. John the Baptist for the benefit of the Pharisees. They thought that St. John would give an explanation justifying the baptism he administered with principles. But, to the surprise of all, he belittled the baptism, as it were, saying: What harm is there in baptizing with water?

Then, St. John the Baptist declares himself to be the Forerunner of someone greater and announces that the Messiah is among them, for he had already baptized Him. It is intriguing that, while they could have asked who this other person was, they did not. The Pharisees were afraid, for if He was shown to them, they would have to change their lives. With such a demanding Precursor, what would that One Whose sandal strap he was not even worthy to untie be like?

Tremendous insecurity resulted. This “One among you” left them feeling extremely uncomfortable, for it meant that in their midst, there was someone even greater than this one who had raised such a stir in the country. Israel had been imbued through and through by a new spirit, which placed everyone in a state of expectation. People converted, they wept for their sins, beat their breasts and… forgot about the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the scribes. In short, this man upset things, because he preached conversion. Nevertheless, above him was that other One, that incomparable Lord of Whom St. John the Baptist said he was not worthy to be the slave. He was “among them,” and they did not know Him… Their perturbation grew as their doubts increased, for they perceived that the disturbance caused to their comfortable situation by the Precursor was but a tremor in comparison with the earthquake that he was announcing…

Solemn Mass for the third Sunday of Advent, presided by Msgr. João Scognamiglio Clá Dias, EP, in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, Caieiras (São Paulo), 13/12/2015

III – Let Us Not Be Deceived by the Apparent Joy of Sin!

In marked contrast to the unconditional joy that the coming of the Redeemer should bring, we see the correlation between rejoicing and sadness, euphoria and vexation, conveyed by the Gospel for this Third Sunday of Advent. While the good are buoyed up by the joy of hope, as was St. John the Baptist and those who converted at the prospect of the Messiah’s appearance, there is sadness and displeasure in the souls of the wicked. It falls to the good to detect the frustration of those who live in sin and not to suppose that they are enjoying success. In the second reading (1 Thes 5:16-24), when St. Paul exhorts, “Rejoice always” (1 Thes 5:16), he wishes to show that those who unite themselves to God, practise virtue, and follow the right path, must never let themselves be overcome by bad sadness.

The Sunday of Joy reveals a very clear division that marks humanity: the good are always rejoicing and the wicked, no matter how hard they try to appear happy, live in sadness. Those who are linked to God have a contentment, security, and happiness unknown to those attached to material things, and who have turned their backs to God. They live side by side, but when the man who pins his hope on the world and sin sees the true joy expressed by the good, he will either convert, or wish to kill him, just as they did to Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us ask, in this Liturgy, for the grace to live in the joy of virtue, as a sign of our entire adhesion to the Saviour Who will soon arrive!



1 THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT. Collect. In: THE ROMAN MISSAL. English translation according to the Third Typical Edition approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and confirmed by the Apostolic See. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2011, p.153.
2 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ, I-II, q.70, a.3.
3 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Super Ioannem, c.I, lect.4.
4 Cf. TUYA, OP, Manuel de. Biblia Comentada, vol. V: Evangelios. Madrid: BAC, 1964, p.972-973.
5 RICCIOTTI, Giuseppe. Vita di Gesù Cristo. (Ed.14). Città del Vaticano: Poliglotta Vaticana, 1941, p.307-308.
6 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Super Ioannem, c.I, lect.12.
7 ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM. Homilia XVI, n.2. In: Homilías sobre el Evangelio de San Juan, vol. I: 1-29. (Ed.2). Madrid: Ciudad Nueva, 2001, p.205.
8 TUYA, op. cit., p.977.
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