Let us reflect in two parts this Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent. The first focuses on the Gospel, specifically the figure of John the Baptist. The second is a reflection on Gaudete Sunday.
Years ago I was consulted by a group of school administrators on how to handle one of their faculty. The teacher was one of their best as far as impact on the students was concerned. The students adored her and even the younger faculty were in awe of her iconic status.
However—here is always the twist—her peers avoided her like the plague. She tended to be dismissive, at best, and often mean toward peers and the staff.
We also saw this pattern of behavior in Steve Jobs, in his biography. Jobs, hailed as a genius who influenced the lives of millions across the world and the course of human history, was like the difficult teacher. He was, according to the biography, a mean boss difficult to work with.
In these examples, persons of iconic status are a boon to many, but also a bane to others.
The figure of John the Baptist in this and last Sunday’s Gospels gives us a diametrically opposed picture of an icon. John the Baptist clearly had a strong following. People went out to the desert to listen to him and to be baptized by him.
We also suppose that he was not totally meek. He criticized some sectors and had strong words against them—“You brood of vipers!” Clearly he was no pushover. Clearly he was charismatic. Even Jesus praised him, “I assure you there is no man born of a woman greater than John.” Iconic indeed!
Yet he shows us the heart of leadership, servant leadership, “One mightier than me is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” He knew that he was the precursor of Jesus.
For many who hold positions of influence or leadership—or who naturally possess and exercise these—John the Baptist reminds us the source of it all. We serve in the name of Jesus. In another part of the Gospels, John the Baptist says, “He must increase and I must decrease.”
This is the Christian icon; to see Christ in these icons and to show that the authentic leader leads others to Christ.
In one of the dramatic scenes in the movie “Henry,” Henry II, King of England, was trying to convince Thomas a’ Becket to rejoin him. Thomas was one of his key aides, having been Lord Chancellor of England. In the movie, Henry—in an abuse of power—leaves Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury hoping that he will continue to put the interests of the state first above the Church’s. But Thomas has a conversion and takes his new job to heart. Thomas soon becomes one of Henry’s critics as Thomas defends the Church from Henry’s efforts to curtail its rights and privileges.
In the dramatic scene, Henry fails to convince Thomas. As Thomas is about to ride away from their meeting, Henry shouts at Thomas, “You are fool, Thomas!” Thomas answers, “I am God’s fool.” Thomas eventually dies a martyr’s death when he is murdered—his story is dramatized also in the play “Murder in the Cathedral”—by the knights of Henry.
To this day, Thomas is venerated both by the Catholic and Anglican Churches as a saint, bishop and martyr; an icon of God’s faithful servant, God’s fool.
Today is also Gaudete Sunday. Just like the Third Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent takes a break from the penitential character of the period of preparation. The vestments’ color changes from violet to rose and so with the candle in the Advent wreath.
It is a reminder to us that amid the trials and challenges of living the Christian life and calling we must not lose sight of the gift of Christian joy when we anchor our self and our life in Christ.
In another movie, “Shadowlands,” the biographical movie on C. S. Lewis, Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, falls in love with an American woman, Joy Gresham, played by Debra Winger. At the start of their love affair she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but Lewis goes on to marry her.
During their honeymoon in the English countryside, Gresham “corners” Lewis who is in denial about her death. While taking a walk, they have to seek shelter in a small barn when it starts to rain. At that point, Gresham tells Lewis that she wants to talk about her impending death because she wants him to be beside her then as he is at that moment. Lewis persists in his denial. Then Gresham tells Lewis, “The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal, Jack.”
Gresham soon weakens and eventually dies. Lewis is beside himself with grief. Slowly he recovers. Then in one of the final scenes of the movie, Lewis tells his student, “The pain now is part of the happiness then.”
In the ’80s, when I taught in high school before I entered the seminary, there was a popular gift to us teachers. It was a small figurine of the Baby Jesus sleeping peacefully on a cross. It is a dramatic reminder that from the time of his birth Jesus was destined for a mission, to die on the cross to save us, to heal a broken world.
The happiness of the child in a manger is part of the pain of Jesus on the cross. The joy of Mary cuddling her newborn babe is part of the sorrow of the Mary in the Pieta. That’s the deal.