This third Sunday of Advent was once called Gaudete Sunday, from the opening word in Latin of the entrance antiphon from the Epistle to the Philippians that we hear in the second reading, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near!” The words “Joy” or “rejoice” appear in today’s readings about 10 times.
Since the Middle Ages, the violet vestments of the Advent season were lightened today to rose. Like the third Sunday in Lent, once called Laetare Sunday, another Latin word for joy, we are allowed to peek ahead today, just to remind us what the season is all about. And it is all about joy. Joy is the common theme of all the liturgies of Advent, but it reaches its first climax today. Of course, the commercial interests that rule the market have long since dictated that Christmas joy was not to be deferred at all and began celebrating to the tune of silver (or most likely plastic) since just after Hallowe’en. But liturgically, Christmas does not really begin until the vigil mass on December 24th.
In the midst of all this anticipated jubilation, you might be tempted to wonder (unless you live in Syria or San Bernardino) why do we have to be reminded to rejoice?
A lot of things can make people sad at this time of year — stress, work pressure, high expectations, loneliness, poverty, and the fear of disappointment, especially because of the felt obligation to buy lots of presents for family and friends. People spend more money this month than during any four months of the rest of the year. And they go deeper into debt. That can be fairly depressing — unless your business depends on Christmas sales.
Many of us have experienced the death of a loved one at Christmas time. Grief can cast a long shadow over the season, often for years. Some of us get discouraged simply because there seems to be less and less time to get more and more done before – well, before. Before whatever it is that we regard as a deadline. Like writing Christmas cards and last-minute shopping. And getting grades in! Did I mention shopping?
People may get depressed because they feel so surrounded by commercialism, materialism, selfishness, and greed. They keep trying to remember something that gets so easily overlooked. We call it Christmas, but it has really become the feast of Santa Claus. It’s the arrival of that jolly old elf that really sets children’s’ hearts racing when they think of Christmas eve. John the Baptist tells us, it’s about Him, not about me.
And so we have to be reminded on Gaudete Sunday not only to rejoice, but why and what joy really is. To begin with, it isn’t just a nice, warm feeling.
Joy is mentioned more in the Book of Isaiah and the Psalms than in all the other books of the Hebrew Bible put together. In the readings from Zephaniah and Isaiah, the Hebrew word for “joy” means joyful singing and shouting. Other words used in these passages mean “to be bright, cheerful, glad, to rejoice, to be mirthful,” even “to be welcome.”
The Greek word used in Christian writings is a little tamer, more subdued and calm. It was used as a greeting, as when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary. But “Ave, Maria” and “Hail Mary” don’t quite convey the sense of deep happiness and real gladness that animates the Hebrew sense of jubilation — “Be joyful, Mary!”
That kind of joy can’t be bought. It doesn’t come from Wal-Mart or Toys’R’Us or The Sharper Image or even office parties. It doesn’t have anything to do with merchandise. It can’t be bought, but it can be caught. In fact, it’s seriously infectious. But you have to be in the right place and the right time. And that’s what the gospel is about, that gospel for today that doesn’t seem to say anything about joy.
When the crowds come to John the Baptizer, they have a sense that something is wrong and he might be able to help them. They were discouraged and sad and probably fearful. “Tell us what to do,” they say. And what John says is startling. “Be generous, be just, be gentle. Tell the truth and stop trashing each other’s reputations. Don’t gripe over your salary.”
He had to be crazy, of course. Who’s ever content with their pay? OK — if you work for Goldman Sachs you might be. But John then tells the crowd that someone else is coming, someone who will baptize the world in fire and the Holy Spirit. They needed to get ready. And they thought that was good news.
Perhaps it takes a bit of anxiety and discouragement to appreciate truly good news. That may be why the gospel is preached first to the poor, to the oppressed, to the downcast, and troubled. The good news they are looking for is not about stocking stuffers or a third XBox player or that BMW you’ve always wanted. Well, for a while, anyway. What they are looking for, and what they will find, is “God’s own peace,” as Paul writes to the Philippians, “a peace beyond all understanding which will stand guard over your hearts and minds.” The knowledge that God is near, in fact right here in our midst.
Now that’s a thought that might even help cure seasonal affective depression. As Zephaniah said, “May God rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in love; may God sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.” Big, noisy, messy festivals. After all, as Jesus taught us, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding feast… In fact, it is a wedding feast, the Supper of the Lamb. Yes, God sings… and dances, too!