Third Sunday of Advent
Is 35:1-6,10; Ps 146: 6-7, 8-9, 9-10; Jas 5:7-10; Mt 11:2-11
Last month, Pope Francis embraced a man with a severely disfiguring disease and the photos appeared around the world. The image was powerful not only because of the profound compassion of that moment but because it drew our imaginations closer to saints like Francis of Assisi (who according to legend kissed a leper in a life-changing encounter) and ultimately to Jesus Christ. For me, one of the greatest marvels of the Pope’s embrace was that it became such a significant headline. With a large picture and big bold typeface, it was the featured story for a time on several news outlets. Among others, I can recall seeing it on CNN.com. Yet, what I remember there was neither the photo nor the headline, but the title of a related article there at the top of the page. The link to the article said simply, “What God’s love looks like.” I have read similar phrases over the years in theological texts and reflections, but never did I expect to find that phrase at the top of CNN.com. When it comes to public talk about religion, we often get stuck on whether there is a God and so rarely make our way to the question of what God’s love might look like. It is exhilarating to see this idea confronting us in our own headlines. But, for the deep joy of recognizing God’s love, the Gospel is still the best source of all . . .
In the readings for this Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, we are also offered multiple glimpses of God’s love. The images are extraordinary:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. (Is 35:5-6)
Throughout this Sunday’s readings we visualize how God transforms human vulnerability, need, and agony. The Psalmist (Ps 146) sings of captives set free and the hungry fed, of strangers who are protected and the bowed down who are raised up. And Matthew’s Gospel refers back to Isaiah in its mention of the blind, deaf, and lame who are healed.
These are visceral images of weakened, groping, and shackled bodies – images of our humanity exposed to the elements and to the brutalities of human community. And this litany of frailty and suffering can speak to us in at least three important ways.
First, this language helps us to name our own needs and desperations. All these conditions are ours in some way – blindness, deafness, death. If we take just a moment we can become keenly aware of the fears and wounds that we carry. In a season of pondering a light in great darkness, we must confront the dark corners of our soul to prepare for God’s healing, illuminating love.
And yet, while these sufferings in some sense speak to our own, we must be wary of claiming it is all about us. Hunger and poverty are realities, not just poetic imagery. We live in a nation in which 22% of children live in poverty. That is not a wound we all carry in some sense. That is a wound borne by some, for which the rest of us must answer. And there are real men and women who are lame. Were we to visit the growing numbers of Syrian refugee camps, how many would we find limping from the brutality of relentless violence? Second, then, the language of this Sunday reminds us that we have a world full of brothers and sisters who are crying out to be restored and made whole again.
Third is that this restoration and healing is at the very center of the Gospel. Indeed, it is how we recognize the presence of God among us. In Matthew’s Gospel, disciples of John the Baptist are sent to ask Jesus if he is the one or if there is another to come. Jesus replies
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
It is stunning response. To know who God is, we must turn our gaze to the poor and marginalized. To recognize God, we must recognize the suffering – and hope – of those in our midst. Jesus’s response here foreshadows the parable in Matthew 25. Those who thought they were simply ministering to the hungry, sick, and imprisoned discover that there were at the same time ministering to Christ. In this Sunday’s reading from Matthew, we find the complement – in looking for Jesus we should look for those who are being restored from their suffering.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis speaks to this notion when he talks of wanting a Church which “is poor and for the poor”:
[The poor] have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them. (para. 198)
We need not wait for a powerful image to flash across CNN in order to know what God’s love looks like. Isaiah, the Psalmist, and Matthew have provided us with the capacity to recognize it – in its actuality and potential – a thousand times over. And so this third Sunday of Advent, we remember how to recognize and rejoice in the love of God, even in the dark corners of our lives and in the anguish of our brothers and sisters. And these two are not so unrelated, for it is impossible to embrace another without being embraced oneself. And that is the mystery and joy of God’s love. So let us take Jesus’s response to heart and come to come know God all the more by turning our gaze to those who are – and must be – restored.