On the third Sunday of Advent, the penitential purple of the season changes to rose and we celebrate “Gaudete” or “Rejoice!” Sunday. “Shout for joy, daughter of Sion” says Zephaniah. “Draw water joyfully from the font of salvation,” says Isaiah. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says St. Paul. “Do penance for the judge is coming,” says John the Baptist.
Wait a minute. What’s that stark, strident saint of the desert doing here, on “Rejoice Sunday”? His stern call to repentance does not seem to fit.
Believe it or not, John the Baptist is the patron saint of spiritual joy. After all, he leapt for joy in his mother’s womb at the presence of Jesus and Mary (Luke 1:44). And it says that he rejoices to hear the bridegrooms voice (John 3:29-30).
Now this is very interesting. Crowds were coming to hear John from all over Israel before anyone even heard a peep out of the carpenter from Nazareth. In fact, John even baptized his cousin. This launched the Lord’s public ministry, heralding the demise of John’s career.
Most of us would not appreciate the competition. The Pharisees and Sadducees certainly didn’t. They felt threatened by Jesus’ popularity. But John actually encouraged his disciples to leave him for Jesus, the Lamb of God. When people came, ready to honor John as the messiah, he set them straight. He insisted that he was not the star of the show, only the best supporting actor. John may have been center-stage for a while, but now that the star had shown up, he knew it was time for him to slip quietly off to the dressing room.
Or to use John’s own example, he was like the best man at a wedding. It certainly is an honor to be chosen as “best man.” But the best man does not get the bride. According to Jewish custom, the best man’s role was to bring the bride to the bridegroom, and then make a tactful exit. And John found joy in this. “My joy is now full. He must increase and I must decrease.”
The Baptist was joyful because he was humble. In fact, he shows us the true nature of this virtue. Humility is not beating up on yourself, denying that you have any gifts, talents, or importance. John knew he had an important role which he played aggressively, with authority and confidence. The humble man does not sheepishly look down on himself. Actually, he does not look at himself at all. He looks away from himself to the Lord.
Most human beings, at one time or another, battle a nagging sense inadequacy. Pride is sin’s approach to dealing with this. Proud people are preoccupied with self, seeing all others as competitors. The proud have to perpetually exalt themselves over others in hope that this will provide a sense of worth and inner peace. Of course, it doesn’t. Human history has proven that point time and time again. Even the pagan Greek storytellers knew that hubris or pride was the root of tragedy. Pride always comes before the fall, as it did in the Garden of Eden.
Humility brings freedom from this frantic bondage. Trying at every turn to affirm, exalt, and protect oneself is an exhausting enterprise. Receiving one’s dignity and self-worth as a gift from God relieves us from this stressful burden. Freed from the blinding compulsion to dominate, we can recognize the presence of God and feel a sense of satisfaction when others recognize that God is God and honor him as such. We can even be free to recognize godliness in someone else and rejoice when others notice and honor this person.
But what about John’s stark call to repentance? How can this be Good News? Because repentance is all about humility and humility is all about freedom. And freedom leads to inner peace and joy, joy in the presence of the Bridegroom.