The Third Sunday of Advent used to be called Gaudete Sunday, from the first word in the entrance verse, which was taken from St. Paul’s letter to Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5). That was when Latin was still used in the liturgy, of course. Calling it “Rejoice Sunday” somehow lacks a certain elegance. But that is the message. Traditionally, the violet vestments
of Advent were lightened to rose, as well. Sometimes they still are, although a few years ago a pastor I know threw them out because he hated pink. It isn’t pink, I protested but in vain. Not his happy color. But colors aside, why should we have to be told to rejoice? That, if anything, should come naturally, especially to those of us who live in what so many people in the world still regard as the Promised Land.
Nevertheless, there it is. We are ordered to rejoice. And, as you might have guessed by now, there is a reason. We have to learn all over again what it means to rejoice, perhaps especially on a day like this, and our best teachers speak to us in today’s readings.
The first reading, from Isaiah 61, repeats the injunction several times, first in the imagery of a desert suddenly blossoming with wildflowers after a long drought. The message quickly shifts to one of encouragement to those who are weak, frightened, and oppressed by disease and economic or political hardship — the blind, the deaf, the lame, and slaves. The word of joy and gladness is given to those in sorrow and mourning. It’s easy to miss that.
In Jesus’ inaugural sermon according to Luke’s Gospel, he expands upon today’s reading from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Then he observes, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now, as then, our proper response to such a message is joy! And, accordingly, our job is now to spread the good news. But to evangelize means first of all to announce the good news of salvation to the poor, the marginalized, the weary, and world-forsaken. And that news is still that the Reign of God is already among us. Jesus’ appearance, life, and ministry inaugurated God’s reign as comfort to the poor and afflicted, freedom to the oppressed, hope to the desperate, and joy to the sorrowing.
Again, in the responsorial psalm appointed to be sung today, we find ourselves confronted by the oppressed, the hungry, captives, the blind, strangers, orphans, and widows. The word “joy” is not found, but securing justice and thwarting the wicked are very much in the psalmist’s mind. Then the Letter from James talks about patience, hardship, and suffering. “Don’t grumble at each other,” he says. Not quite the same as rejoicing, but important, especially for people who have every reason to grumble. The gospel tell us that Jesus’ response to John’s question is simply this: “the blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and, above all, the poor have the good news preached to them.” He couldn’t have missed the point.
And by now, we should have gotten the point as well. Hearing good news really means something to people who are used to hearing mostly bad news. And so our models in faith are the poor, the oppressed, the suffering. Their joy is rooted in their deepest longing. They know what they need.
Imagine, if you will, what good news might mean to those who are homeless on the streets of Chicago or even Oak Park this Christmas. In years past, “homeless” might mean one of those chronically poor men and bag ladies who used to sleep in cardboard boxes on the Lower Wacker Drive or haunt the access routes to the expressways. Today, their number includes returned veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and families who have lost their homes to the banks. Or fire. People who are often just out of work, out of money, and out of luck. Or perhaps just out of prison. It might be helpful at this time of year to recall that our nation has the highest proportion of imprisoned citizens in the entire world.
All want to hear some good news. Even if it’s just some loose change.
In his letter, James tells again today to steady our hearts because, he says, help is coming. Not just assistance, not just loose change, but salvation — a promise of hope, and a counsel of something more. “Patience” or “endurance” is how it is usually translated, but the word James uses means something more like “great-heartedness.” Hang in there, he says, continue to look ahead to a better day. The Lord IS coming. And that’s the good news, especially if you are poor, desperate, out of work, and sick. What Jesus tells John in his prison cell is that “the reign of God has begun. Look around you.”
Let’s grant that those rich in worldly goods often no longer know what their deepest heart’s desire is. So what God is telling us in these readings is that if we really want to hear good news, we must first own up to the bad news — which may just be a failure to look around and see real want, both in ourselves and in others. To become rich in Christ, to know what true joy is, we must face our poverty, our suffering, our oppression, and illness. Lacking real treasure, we have to learn again to long.
That is why Jesus’ appearance, life, and ministry inaugurated God’s reign as comfort to the poor and afflicted, freedom to the oppressed, hope to the desperate, and joy to the sorrowing. And why, amid all the material bounty of this land, to hear his Gospel, God’s good news, requires continuous conversion — changing our way of thinking by putting on the mind of Christ; and repentance — changing our way of living by loving and aiding our neighbor as Christ loved and aided us. Healed and forgiven, we’ll truly have something to rejoice about.
Let us pray, then, that in this joyful season, on this Rejoice Sunday, we will steady our hearts, enlarge our spirits, and in mercy and love continue looking ahead to the fullness of Christ’s presence.