Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday). Fr Bruno Clifton tells us that the incarnation is not an idea but a visible reality.

‘Don’t think, but look!’

The Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, with this advice, was trying to get us to consider things as they are in each case and not as we think they should be or as we are used to them. When we inquire into reality, we should not presume we have understood simply through a previous suggestion or by what we expect to be the case. We must encounter things and see what is in front of us and not remain within our mind, thinking ‘this must be’ or ‘this can’t be’.

So, experience has to give shape to what we know and believe. It is how we know anything: how we learn.

The Jews in Exile are experiencing the harshness of God’s anger; learning a lesson we could say, as prisoners far from their home. Yet now, the prophecy of Isaiah comes to bring hope. ‘God will come and save you.’ So, how do we know these are not empty words?

In the real pains of exile and imprisonment, hope must take the form of the prospect of an equally real joy of salvation. Isaiah gives us the vision of what this joy, this salvation will look like: how we shall know it – through the visible reversal of pain and defect.

‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped…’ Why? ‘…because the ransomed of the Lord shall return.’

Is it a coincidence that it is the restoration of inhibited senses that is among the signs that we experience, and so know God has come to save us? We are able to see and hear anew, because the arrival of God allows all to see and hear. The sign is what it signifies; God does what he shows us – open our senses to what is real.

So we know that sorrow will be ended, not in theory, but in practice. Don’t think, look.

John in prison can’t look, but he can do the next best thing, which is hear. He can hear the Good News from those who have seen – ‘he heard of the deeds of Christ.’ So John sends to ask Jesus if he can trust what he has learnt – are you the one who comes to save us?

Listen to Jesus’s response: ‘tell John what you hear and see…’ It is that appeal to what is in front of us; to what is the case.

Jesus goes on to ask the crowd, ‘What did you go out into the desert to see…?’ We are called to look, to encounter the living God.

This brings the answer to our inquiry. Is Jesus the Messiah? Has our salvation come? Well, do the blind see and lame walk? See what is in front of you, for how else will you know?

And yet, of course, this is not uncomplicated. Or rather let us say, it must be given to us to see, just as the eyes of the blind are opened. As we said, it is not coincidental that by the very sign of the Lord’s advent, we can see what is the case.

The fact that the advent of salvation is experienced then, points to something deeper. As we know, our season of Advent prepares for God’s entry into the world, his ‘dwelling among us’, as we read at the beginning of John’s Gospel.

Let’s read a little further into John’s account of the story, Jesus being seen at the Jordan River. Right at the beginning of his appearance among us in this Gospel, Jesus is asked by the disciples of John the Baptist who have seen him, where he dwells.

‘Come and see’, he says. They have heard the Baptist; they have seen Jesus and they encounter the signs of salvation. Meeting Jesus is the greatest sign these disciples of the Baptist can experience. Seeing the one who has come into the world, seeing the one who brings the lame to walk and the deaf to hear, is the fundamental experience when we look to see what is the case, because it is the simple encounter with God, who made all there is.

The revelation we celebrate at Christmas is that God comes looking for us in our exile of sin. We are not talking about concept or suggestion, but the reality of being found by God and being able to see him. And this visibility in our world is in the grace given to us when we love our enemy; when we care for the poor; when we see the image of God in all our brothers and sisters.

So at Christmas, we have a response when the world asks us as it asked the psalmist all the day long, ‘where is your god…?’

Readings:Isaiah 35:1-6,10 | James 5:7-10 | Matthew 11:2-11

fr Bruno is Vice-Regent of Blackfriars Hall and Studium, Oxford, where he teaches Biblical Studies.