THE SHEPHERD’S CANDLE: A SYMBOL OF JOY
HOMILY FOR THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT (GAUDETE), YEAR A. Readings: Isaiah 35:6-10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-10 and Matthew 11:2-11.
The third Sunday of advent is generally known as “Gaudete” Sunday, which means, “Rejoice.” The Liturgy of today is therefore an anticipation of the joy we will experience on Christmas day. This joy is symbolically represented by the rose/pink candle. The candle is called the Shepherd’s Candle because it stands for the joy of the Shepherds which means that Christ also came for the humble and less-important people like them. The readings express the joy of having a redeemer who will liberate and restore His people to salvation.
The prophet Isaiah in the first reading urges us to rejoice and be joyful because God himself is coming to save his people. After the judgment described in Isaiah 34 where “Yahweh’s sword is filled with blood” and will effect “a great slaughter in the land of Edom” (Is 34:6) and “a day of vengeance” (34:8). God in chapter 35 will bring a beautiful restoration that “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the lily it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing” (Is 35:1). This is exactly what the liturgy of today calls us to do, to rejoice because our Savior is coming. He is coming with bountiful gifts and he is known to be the ideal Father Christmas. He calls us to rejoice because when he comes, “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (35:5-6).
This poetic language could reflect God’s concern for physical infirmities. It could be a metaphor for the people of God generally. It could be an eschatological (end of time) character, portraying the beauty that we can expect with God in heaven. Most likely, it is all of this, and more. It is on this note that that verse 10 presents the joy that will accompany the Lord’s coming for those who have been ransomed. It says, “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (v.10). Invariably, the joy that we express today is only a foretaste of that which we are to experience when Christ comes. This joy is a tip of the iceberg; a greater joy awaits us, that is why this Sunday invites us to rejoice but not to be carried away because our preparations and battles are not yet over. It is only a moment of refreshment or break time to rejuvenate again. The Gaudete Sunday is a like a ‘timeout’ in basketball game or ‘half time’ in football match with the purpose of refreshing or regaining energy and strategy on how to achieve one’s final goal. The joy of this Sunday is not our final destination but like a stopover to refill our fuel tank for the rest of the journey in order to meet and welcome Christ. A greater joy which cannot be compared to our pains and sufferings is ahead.
The gospel is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in the first ready that when John the Baptist heard of him in the prison, he had to send message to his disciples to ask, “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for someone else?” How could John raise this question when he earlier preached, “Make ready the way of the Lord. Make his path straight” (Mt 3:3); During Christ’ baptism, he said, “I need to be baptized by you” (3:14); after the baptism of Christ, he heard the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (3:17). So why will he ask if he is the one to come? The reason is found in his messianic expectations. John like the Jews expected a fire and brimstone messiah but the messiah came with a preaching of love for enemies, peacemaking and forgiveness. He must have probably expected the messiah to free him from his physical prison and oppressors as in the case of Paul and Silas (Acts 16). Similarly some of us ask, why will God allow the righteous to suffer? Why doesn’t God answer our prayers for healing? Why doesn’t God reward us with riches or whatever we desperately need? However, we admire the courage of John, open to hear and learn from Christ, not going behind to criticize but approached Christ through his disciples.
In response to the message of John and to us, Christ said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have a good news preached to them…” (Mt 11:3-5). This response therefore, calls for great joy and for us to rejoice at the coming of the messiah. These responses are signs of the messiah as prophesied by Isaiah and were executed by Christ. Christ’ answer demands more of John. He asks John to stretch his understanding to fit a very different messiah than the one whom he expected. He also asks us too to stretch our understanding to fit a different model of the messiah than the magic problem-solver and giver of good things that we would prefer, which has practically become a norm for many Christians jumping from one church or pastor to another.
As we have our refreshment in this season of Advent, James in the second reading urges us to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord like the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth. He said, “Be patient and do not lose heart for the Lord is at heart” (James 5:8). James gives us an example of patience, to take the prophet who spoke in the name of the Lord, and the last of the prophet was John the Baptist, of which Christ said, “Among those born of woman there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet, he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mt 11:11). If we can endure patiently in our sufferings like John the Baptist, we shall experience the fullness of joy in his kingdom. We are therefore reminded that the joy represented by the pink/rose candle is a foreshadow of the fullness of joy to come. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus.
Fr. Ken Dogbo, OSJ