Today, we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent. This Sunday is often referred to Guadete Sunday, from the Latin word to rejoice. The priest wears a rose colored vestment today and a rose colored candle is lit on the Advent wreath, as symbols of the joy and rejoicing we should recognize today as part of our celebration of the Advent season and of our waiting with expectation for the birth of our Savior on Christmas, less than two weeks away. It might seem strange to us to hear a Gospel reading about John the Baptist being imprisoned on this Sunday dedicated to joy and rejoicing. And then John asks a question that is completely unexpected, as he sends his disciples to look for Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come,or should we look for another?” Is this the same John the Baptist was spoke with such strong, confident words last week, just a few chapters earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, telling us to repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand, and foretelling the coming of the Messiah, the one who would baptize us with fire and the Holy Spirit.
Is John having doubts as to who Jesus is? Is he caving under the pressures of life in prison? Or is John changing his preconceived notions of what the Savior would be like and deepening his belief in Jesus, since he probably expected a strong military leader who would lead Israel back to greatness. And now as proof that Jesus has brought a salvation and a redemption that is different than what the Jesus of Ancient Israel expected, Jesus explains that he has not gained military victories, but rather has healed the the poorest in society: the blind, the lame, and the lepers.
During Advent, we are called to prepare for and await the coming of Christ into our world with hope and expectation. We are called to seek out experiences of repentance, experiences that will mold us and transform us in our journey of faith. Today, perhaps the message we receive from John the Baptist is that we need to acknowledge our vulnerability and to be real as we approach God in the midst of all that is going on in our lives. So often we do not know what is going on beneath the surface of someone’s life, do we? We can see someone who is very successful in a career, who has a supportive and loving family, and who was educated in the best of schools. Yet, if the person is able to tell you what is going on in his heart, he might tell you that he is scared and lonely with the things that are confronting him in life, that he is struggling with an addiction that he can’t control, that he lacks confidence, self-worth, and self-esteem.
As a priest, what I try to do is preach words during my homily that get to the core of what is going on in your daily lives, to apply God’s Word to the reality of what we are dealing with on our journey. Last Sunday evening, I visited the confirmation class and had the opportunity to answer some of the questions the youth had of me, such as: As a priest, have you ever wished that you could get married? Has there ever been anything that has made you doubt God? What do you like most about being a priest? Those are good questions, and as you can imagine, some of the honest answers to those questions don’t fit into neat, tidy little boxes. Sometimes, we struggle with our doubts. Sometimes, we try something and we fail. Sometimes, we feel vulnerable and wounded and out of sorts. Sometimes we don’t have the answers and don’t even know what questions to ask. And that’s ok. That is reality. And we are called to bring all of that to God in the midst of our journey this Advent season.
Our journey through Advent may be edifying and comforting this year. Or it can be just the opposite - the reality many of us may be facing in our lives be very harsh and troubling. We may want an easy journey to go down, but our road might be filled with a lot of detours and pot holes and stops along the way. I mentioned to you last week traveling by bicycle for 2 years in Winnipeg, Canada, often in the snow and ice. When I left that assignment in Canada, I went down to the country of Ecuador in South America for 2 years, where I served as a missionary in a rain forest jungle for 3 years – quite the other extreme. I traveled throughout the jungle mostly in a canoe on my trips to the various villages there where I did my work. And mind you, these were not narrow, tranquil rivers, but rather rivers the looked about the width of rivers like the Mississippi in places. One day, I was offered a ride in a canoe owned by one of the governmental agencies in town, so I did not have to pay my passage. We were supposed to leave at noon, but after many delays, we did not leave until early evening, when the sun was starting to set, and we had at least a 4 hour journey ahead of us. By the time the sun set, we traveled through the darkness of the jungle with only a small flashlight on the canoe lighting up the way. I thought – this cannot be the safest thing in the world, what we are doing. About halfway through the journey – the canoe slammed into a large object in the river, and I felt like I was being tossed around the canoe like a ragdoll. Through my mind, I heard my voice cry out – Oh no, this is where I am going to die. However, everything returned to calm, and by some miracle, the canoe did not overturn. We had hit a large tree that had fallen into the river. What a frightening experience we had gone through. We did end up making to the village that night – very late and very shaken up – and very, very thankful for having arrived safely. Unfortunately, I can tell you story after story of things that happened to me as a missionary, many of them quite frightening and dangerous experiences. Many times I knew that I was putting myself in a dangerous situation, but I had no other choice but to hope for best many of those times. I knew that being a missionary meant taking a lot of risks, but I also knew that God was calling me to that life, and that I would do my best and trust in his will. I recently heard a radio program on National Public Radio that stated that real courage comes out of our vulnerability, not out of our strength. Well, I definitely felt vulnerable as a missionary many times, and I had to walk by faith every step of the way to make it through. As I mentioned, that what our Advent journey is about in many ways. It is how we approach God in our vulnerability and our questions and our searching, just as John the Baptist approached Jesus. It is would we do with our doubt and our struggles and our inadequacies. Think of the vulnerability you way being experiencing in some aspect of your life, ask yourself how you can use that as a stepping stone in approaching God in your Advent journey and in your preparations for the birth of our Savior into the world.