Homily: 3rd Sunday of Advent – Cycle B
Gaudete! Today the Church celebrates Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete”, because it is the Latin word for “Rejoice” and it happens to be the very first word that the Church proclaims in the Mass today. The Mass, as it is written in Latin, begins with the Introit, or “Entrance Antiphon”, which is a short verse taken from the Bible that is said or sung (preferably sung). The Church allows us to substitute a hymn for the antiphon and so we almost never hear it during Sunday Mass (a hymn with which everyone is familiar makes it easier to engage everyone in the Mass from the first moment); but in the official liturgical books, the Mass begins with the Introit.
The Entrance Antiphon for the Third Sunday of Advent comes from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians and reads: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, Gaudete. Dominus enim prope est. In English: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” Ever since the time of Pope Saint Gregory the Great in the sixth century this Sunday of Advent has been marked by this phrase which invites us to remember that this time of solemn preparation is also a time of joyful preparation; and it is the reason that we wear a more festive color in our vestments and we light a rose colored candle. All of this focusing on “rejoice”, however, begs the question: “In this season of joy, in what do we rejoice?”
For many of us, I suppose that the answer to this question is simple: We rejoice in the coming celebration of the birthday of Christ and that, with it, comes joy-filled time with family and friends following traditions of celebration that connect us to generations of loved ones. For some of us, perhaps, we rejoice that all of our presents for loved ones have been bought and wrapped and we can spend one last week truly enjoying the season (perhaps, however, that’s only a few of us). Maybe we rejoice in another year of good health, good work, growth in our families, or accomplishments in our personal lives. These, of course, are all worthy things in which to rejoice (to greater and lesser degrees). Nevertheless, not everyone is able to rejoice in these things at this time of year; and so none of these can be the reason why the Church calls us to rejoice. This, therefore, begs the further question: “In this season of joy, in what should we rejoice?”
For the prophet Isaiah, the answer was simple. He had been part of God’s chosen people who had suffered in exile for years. He had declared to the people how their sinfulness, their disregard for God and his commandments, had led to their exile as a sign that God had taken away his protection from them and that his covenant with them had been broken. Now, however, Isaiah was able to declare joyful news: that the time of punishment was at an end. In his own words: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.” Everyone likes to be the bearer of good news, right? So, no wonder why Isaiah would rejoice. Notice, however, that this is not the reason why he rejoices.
In the following verse we hear: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels.” Isaiah proclaimed this joyful news: that Israel’s exile was at an end. He rejoiced not in the news, however, but in what God had done for him: that, in declaring this good news, Isaiah is declaring that God has brought salvation to him and to his people—and, thus, that he has forgiven their sins—so that they might be restored to right relationship with God; which, for them, meant eternal life. Now this is something in which all of us can rejoice, right?
All of us here: those who have been baptized, and even, in a way, those who are seeking baptism, have been “clothed in a robe of salvation” through faith and, thus, it is in this that we must “rejoice heartily in the Lord”. The Third Sunday of Advent rightly turns our focus from our anticipation of Jesus’ Second Coming to the celebration of his First Coming on the day of his birth (for it is now readily at hand). We “rejoice”, however, not just because Jesus was born to us (even though the coming of God in human flesh would be reason enough to rejoice!), but rather because of what his birth meant for us. It meant not just that God was going to walk among us, like one of us, but that our salvation was finally at hand! And that the long reign of death—and sin that causes death—is now at an end: for God has come to save us!
My brothers and sisters, if the thing in which we rejoice during this season of joy is not that the birth of Christ was the in-breaking of salvation into the world, then we’ll never understand what Saint Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks…” How could we possibly “rejoice, pray, and give thanks always” in this world that is still filled with so much sadness and pain unless our rejoicing was for something that transcends this world of darkness, which has the power to protect us within it and to lift us up from it? The answer, of course, is that we can’t. And so, the Church reminds us: Gaudete in Domino semper: “Rejoice in the Lord always…”
Friends, if you struggle to “rejoice in the Lord”, don’t worry. Perhaps, like the priests, Levites, and Pharisees who came out to see John the Baptist you are looking for the Lord in great signs and powerful show. Or, perhaps, you’ve just let yourself get caught up in the materialism and commercialism of secular Christmas. If so, allow me to remind you that the Lord in whom you will find a lasting joy has come, yes, and is coming again, yes, but is also already among us; in an appearance, perhaps, that we don’t recognize: the bread and cup that we receive from this altar. Let us, then, turn to him here, in this humble presence, during this last, full week of Advent, and meet him again; so that, when we celebrate his birth, this joy of salvation might be in us and our joy might be complete.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – December 17th, 2017