Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Years ago, Gustavo Gutierrez, who is considered one of the founders of liberation theology, spoke at Newman Theological College as part of the Bishop Anthony Jordan lecture series. In his presentations, he gave North Americans some advice about possible motives for going to Latin America.
Gutierrez told his hearers that if they were coming out of anger at the injustices Latin Americans were facing, then don’t come, he stated, because they had enough angry people already.
If they wanted to come out of guilt at having so much when Latin Americans have so little, then don’t come, he repeated, as they had enough guilty people already. However, if they wanted to come because they were grateful at all the blessings that God has given them then they could come because Latin America could always use more grateful people.
In a practical way, Gutierrez was underlining the theme of this Gaudate Sunday — that a genuine life of faith in Jesus, concern for justice, and caring for especially the poor, will be characterized by joy.
Be happy, pray always, and be grateful because of the Lord, St. Paul is able to say in the second reading. Be open to the Spirit, and be holy, he adds, for God has called us to that.
Isaiah in the first reading is very much like Simeon in the gospel who after he held the baby Jesus in his arms in the temple, rejoiced because he had seen the salvation of God. For his part, Isaiah exults and rejoices for the gift of salvation and integrity. He goes on to say that God will make integrity and praise spring up in the sight of all the nations, a suggestion that justice and joy go hand in hand.
Isaiah then goes on to speak prophetic words that Jesus would claim as his own in the synagogue at Capernaum: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me to proclaim Good News to the poor; to bind up broken hearts; to proclaim liberty to captives; to free prisoners; to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.”
It is interesting that the category of prisoners or captives is mentioned twice. Perhaps that is an illusion to the two kinds of bondage or captivity people at any stage of history or in any society experience for which they need release: unjust political imprisonment, and personal bondage to painful dark emotions such as anger and bitterness; negative attitudes such as false pride and stubbornness, or addictions, either to chemical addiction such as alcoholism, or process addictions such as gambling, pornography, power and control.
In the gospel, we see the presence of especially the negative attitudes of false pride and stubborn self-righteousness in the person of the priests and Levites, and in the Pharisees who sent them, as soon as someone like John the Baptist appears, who might even hint at being a threat to the religious establishment.
Not only did they personify those negative attitudes with their refusal to believe in John or Jesus for whom he was preparing the way; they also were addicted to power and control, and that was what they were so intent on preserving at all costs. That enslavement to suspicion, false pride, stubborn self-righteousness and addiction to power and control was precisely what Jesus came to free them from, had they only been more humble, able to repent and let John be who John said he was. Because they were not — they excluded themselves from any possibility of that joy and exultation that Jesus came to give so freely to anyone who would believe and follow him.
The religious authorities of Jesus’ day were like people who go to religious events and pilgrimages just to observe like tourists, instead of being pilgrims going to humbly seek forgiveness and healing that leads to joy.
To those who genuinely believe in Jesus, who sincerely try to obey his commandments to love God, love others as he has loved us and as we love ourselves, and even love and forgive our enemies, there will always be the possibility of joy and even exultation.
Recently a U.S. network did a 13-minute special on the Copts in Egypt. As a minority, they have always faced some persecution for their faith, but recent years have been the worst. After their leader stood with the military during the uprising in Egypt, Muslim extremists went berserk and ransacked, burnt and destroyed dozens of Coptic churches, and there was no one to help them.
The news personnel later attended a large gathering of Copt faithful at one of the churches that was not damaged. They found no trace of retaliation, of a desire for revenge. Instead, one of the priests they interviewed calmly said that forgiveness was the core of Christianity, and that was what they have always lived, even to the point of martyrdom. And that, he pointed out, was the life of faith that they were living presently.
The Copts were just the opposite of the priests, Levites and Pharisees that John faced in the gospels, and with whom Jesus struggled so much, right up to his martyrdom on the cross. They were perhaps not exulting, but certainly, like Jesus on the cross, they were at peace, a peace that only God can give.
The eucharist that we celebrate now is itself an exultation, a moment of joyful celebration. We know that the one whom John announced came, lived among us, died for us, rose again to new life, and gives us his Spirit that we might live as he did.
May our celebration today strengthen our faith and empower us to be like Isaiah and the Thessalonians, able to exult, rejoice, be grateful and spread the Good News that Jesus has overcome death, darkness and evil in all its forms, and that we share in that final victory already through faith and love, despite any darkness around us.
Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-The Pas, is chaplain at the Star of the North Retreat House in St. Albert, Alta. He continues to live out his motto, Regnum Dei Intra Vos (the kingdom of God is among you), which is his overriding focus and passion.