Third Sunday of Advent – Year B
[Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Luke 1; 1Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28]
During a recent parish visit, I had occasion to sit down with a group of grade-four children. Their teachers asked me to speak with them about prayer. We discussed what prayer is, and how and when we pray. At one point, I asked them what prayer was like for them. One little girl was quick to respond. Struggling a bit to express her thoughts, she said, “You know, when you have a guitar and some of its strings are out of tune, and someone turns the knobs to tighten the strings and get them back in tune? Well,” she said, “that’s what prayer is like for me.” All the adults looked at one another in astonishment at the wonderful wisdom coming from the child. Life is out of tune, and we need God to get us back in tune. Let’s allow the profound insight of that little girl to lead us into the message of Sacred Scripture this morning as we enter the final stage of preparation for the celebration of Christmas.
I am no musician, but I understand the tuning process of an instrument, or group of instruments, to begin with the sounding of a single note. Everything not in alignment with that note, or “out of tune”, is then adjusted to accord with it and thus become “in tune”, a singular and collective harmony. What we are about to hear again at Christmas is that God has sounded the note. His one clear note entered the cacophony of history in the birth of His Son, Jesus. In Jesus, God’s “note”, we hear the entirety of God’s purpose for humanity. This note reverberates throughout the Gospels and echoes through time in the Tradition and teaching of the Church. By sounding His note, God summons all of humanity to acknowledge that it is out of tune with His loving plan for the world, and allow His mercy to bring us back “in tune” with His saving purpose.
That our world is severely out of tune with God is self-evident. The fact reveals itself in the wars waged in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere; in angry polarization among peoples and within families; and in massive displacement of populations. We see it here in our own country in the erosion of respect for the dignity of human life, a widening moral confusion, pervasive despair, including among the young, and homeless encampments on our streets. Perhaps in our own personal lives we are feeling “out of tune” with the Lord because of past mistakes, broken relationships, or a general disillusionment with life.
To keep with the image provided by the girl in grade four, we need to ask how to get the strings tuned again, to bring our lives back into harmony with the note sounded in Christ. For the answer, let’s turn to what the Gospel of John tells us today regarding St. John the Baptist.
First, we hear that John identifies himself as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ’Make straight the way of the Lord.’” As we know from the other Gospels, this “making straight the way” is another term for repentance. So, from the mission given by God to John the Baptist, we know that the first step toward having our lives put back in tune is to repent. This begins by honestly admitting to myself how I have “sounded my own note” and sought to align all aspects of my life, and perhaps even the lives of others, with my own personal will and desires, rather than remaining attuned to the will of God.
Second, John points us to the One who does the re-tuning when he deflects attention away from himself and onto Jesus. There is “one who is coming after me, “he says; “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” We now know what John the Baptist at that time could never have even imagined, namely, that this “one who is to come” is none other than the Eternal Son made flesh, sent from the Father to reconcile all of humanity with God, to bring all things “into tune” with the divine saving purpose, and who would do so by the wondrous outpouring of mercy from the Cross. We do not “re-tune ourselves” because we cannot do so. Thinking that it rests solely with us to get our lives back in tune will only lead to frustration and despair. Knowing that God not only can change our lives but also is actively at work to tune them gives rise to hope and joy within our hearts.
Here we find the reason in the other biblical texts why both Isaiah and St. Paul summon God’s people to joy at all times, including those we find most difficult: God is faithful to His saving purpose; He does not want us to remain “out of tune” with Him, and so is always at work, especially in our suffering and hardships, to put things right and bring us back to His embrace. God’s fidelity is our joy. All God asks is that we surrender in repentance to the note he has sounded in His Son and allow Jesus to tune us by the gift of mercy, so that every aspect of our lives, both as individuals and as a community, will once again harmonize with the Gospel.
That little girl in grade four expressed in her own way what Isaiah, St. Paul, and St. John the Baptist taught in theirs. Our lives may get out of tune, but God is at work in Christ to do the re-tuning, if we but turn to Him. As we celebrate the Eucharist on this Gaudete Sunday, let us together take heart and rejoice in the fidelity of our God. May the Holy Spirit turn our hearts and minds again to Jesus, and cause to well up within us a spirit of true joy as we prepare to contemplate in his birth the manifestation of God’s saving purpose and faithful love.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Saint Joseph Basilica
December 17th, 2023