“Who are you? Why are you doing these things?”
The Gospel for “Gaudete Sunday” seems intentionally set to contrast with the opening of Mark’s Gospel heard last Sunday. The fourth evangelist introduces the Baptist starkly, without narrative set-up, geographical placement, or details about his ministry. The sweeping cosmic overview of John 1:1-18 leads us to a stage-set, empty except for “[a] man named John [who] was sent from God” (John 1:6) and a group of others sent “from Jerusalem,” who ask John: “Who are you?” (John 1:19)
The Baptist answers: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). John lives in the desert, a lifeless world of dangers, temptations, and failure, and he is proclaiming that God is acting even in this place. His identity is that of one shaken awake and himself shaking all awake to recognize this action of God.
Immediately, a second question is posed to John: “Why then do you baptize […]?” (John 1:25). In other words, “Why are you doing these things?” He answers, “[T]here is one among you whom you do not recognize” (John 1:26). The unknown figure to whom John testifies is Christ, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), the bread of life (John 6:35). He is God present in “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). John testifies to God’s action in the desert of this world in Jesus Christ, God incognito.
Joy in Being Shaken Awake and Serving God Incognito
Though this Gospel seems an unusual pairing with the other readings about joy, I think John the Baptist gives two reasons for our Advent joy: we are people who are shaken awake to God’s action, and we are people pointing in hope to the action of God incognito.
The German Jesuit Alfred Delp—martyred for his resistance to the Nazis—rings a modern twist on John the Baptist’s first reason. Delp insists that we must recognize that we are in a desert of our own making, and we must be shaken awake:
Advent is a time of being deeply shaken, so that [human beings] will wake up to [themselves]. The prerequisite for a fulfilled Advent is a renunciation of the arrogant gestures and tempting dreams with which, and in which, [human beings are] always deceiving [themselves]. Thus [they compel] reality to use violence to bring [them] around, violence and much distress and suffering.
This Advent has brought us close to the depths of our self-deception. This violence, distress, and suffering can be seen in the injustices surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others; the Senate’s report on torture; the continuing warfare and persecution of Christians in the Middle East. There are innumerable situations closer to home—our pride, our infidelities in relation to others, our own snubbing of the poor in our communities—that cry out for our attention. Both the Baptist and Delp show that Advent calls us to be shaken awake to ourselves, our personal and structural sin, and the reality of a world crying for God’s action.
In this painful awakening, we must rejoice, not despair. Shaken awake, confronted with the sinful reality around us, our eyes can be opened to God working in this desert, in and through those whom we have hurt by our sin, our privilege, our negligence. The Incarnate Word is the One sent “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1), but He is also the One Whom we serve in the poor, the hungry, the victims of injustice. Christ is both the One acting and the One acted upon: the Savior of the world who destroys evil and the One Whom we serve in being anointed with the Spirit and following His example.
As John pointed to Him at His first coming, we point to Him at work now. Our mission is to recognize Him in his manifold disguises, to point out His nascent reign of life and liberation present throughout all the earth, and to serve Him. For He will come again, “mak[ing] justice and praise spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:11).
On this Gaudete Sunday, let us receive this difficult joy of the Baptist. Let us pray that we may be shaken awake to who we are, recognizing the wasteland around us as well as the work of God occurring here. Let us remember why we do what we do: God Incognito is at work in, through, and among us in word, sacrament, and especially our neighbor against whom we have sinned. Let us thus be filled with joy, for indeed the Lord is near to us in disguise, and the Lord is coming with glory unveiled. Come, Lord Jesus, that our joy may be complete.
 The Third Sunday of Advent in the Catholic Church is known as “Gaudete Sunday” (“Rejoice Sunday”) from the entrance antiphon for today’s Mass: “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete:[…] Dominus prope est” (“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near”: Philippians 4:4-5).
 Alfred Delp, S.J., Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944, trans. Abtei St. Walburg (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 23.