There’s a certain irony in calling today’s celebration “Gaudete [Rejoice!] Sunday,” its former title, although joy and the word “rejoice” appear frequently in the readings. The opening verse of the old “entrance antiphon,” ‘Rejoice in the Lord always!’ [Phil 4:4-5], is echoed in the second reading: “Rejoice always, never cease praying: render constant thanks” [1 Thess. 5:16]. Today, people are rejoicing, too, even in the midst of a still-calamitous year. The news that the vaccines have begun to be distributed for immunizing the nation against the pandemic coronavirus is worth celebrating for sure. But the struggle is not over, much though hope is brighter now than during the past nine months. There is still darkness clouding our lives.
Traditionally, the violet vestments of Advent are lightened today to rose, a forecast of the joyful feast that beckons just two weeks ahead.
Years back, a pastor I worked with, a great friend and colleague, surprised me the first year we were in our new church by removing the rose-colored vestments. “I hate pink,” he explained. I pleaded that they were not pink but rose – a lighter shade of violet, the color of penitence, the reform of life called for by John the Baptist and Jesus – ‘metanoia.’ (It didn’t work.)
As for rejoicing, that term we translate “penance,” from which we get the term “penitential” and also “penitentiary,” means to change our way of thinking and therefore of living. It had nothing to do with punishment, especially self-punishment. It is about moral and spiritual transformation. Originally, a penitentiary was a prison where people guilty of some crime were sent to turn their lives around, to make amends. Amendments. Something to rejoice over. After all, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance –metanoia” [Luke 15:7].
Today, tragically, a penitentiary is now a place where those guilty of very serious crimes, whether or not they have repented, and even those wrongfully convicted, are put to death, as happened again Thursday and Friday nights with the executions of Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois. Last July, the current administration reintroduced federal executions as a matter of policy, ending a seventeen-year moratorium. As a result, thirty-four more executions are scheduled over the coming two years. And if lethal injection proves cumbersome, the Department of Justice wants to reintroduce electrocution, hanging, and shooting.
The Catholic Church, to which Attorney General William Barr nevertheless professes membership, has strenuously opposed capital punishment beginning with the misgivings of Pope John Paul II, and since made a cornerstone of the moral teaching of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. In 2018, the Catechism of the Church was amended accordingly. The bishops of the United States support this position and many have directly intervened on behalf of those condemned to die at the hands of their fellow citizens.
The United States is the only western industrialized nation that still inflicts capital punishment on its citizens. Presently it has the sixth highest number of executions in the world, of which the great majority are carried out in the state of Texas. [https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/death-penalty-in-2019-facts-and-figures/]
Grim tidings on this Rejoice Sunday, but it is worth noting that both John the Baptist and Jesus himself were legally and unjustly executed by state authority. And that is a very good reason to understand why we look forward to that Advent of Justice and Mercy that Isaiah anticipated, “a year of favor from the Lord, and a day of vindication by our God…” Like Isaiah, Jesus was also called, as he announced in his first sermon in his home synagogue
“to bring glad tidings to the lowly,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…
Then, putting down the scroll, he said, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” [see Luke 4:18].
That didn’t go over very well,. But if we truly grasp the meaning of that message, our response can only be joyful even in dark times such as these, at least if we count ourselves among those who need spiritual transformation – metanoia. Accordingly, our task, like that of John the Baptist and Jesus, is to spread the good news especially to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the world-weary, the bereaved, and prisoners of hopelessness. That will truly prepare the way for a joyful and merry Christmas for everyone.