Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
If you have been worshipping with us with any regularity this Advent you will notice a slight variation this morning in our liturgical colors. The traditional Sarum blue is normally flanked by earthy green and highlights of crimson, all colors that represent the mystery of the Incarnation; that is, God becoming flesh and blood, putting on our human vesture in the womb of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Just as future parents prepare themselves for the birth of a child, so this season of Advent is a time for prayer, recollection, and getting our lives in order in preparation for the birth of Jesus at Christmas. But today, the Sarum blue is complimented by swatches of velvety rose to signify the third Sunday of Advent which is known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday. Gaudete, the Latin word for “Rejoice,” is the first word we hear in both the Introit[i] to today’s Mass from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice,” as well as the Epistle from his letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Gaudete Sunday is a day of rejoicing!
But why the change in tone? Advent, a penitential season, is a time expectant waiting; a time to put our houses in order; a time of (in the words of John the Baptist) repentance, of turning away from self-destructive paths of ego and self in order to make room for the arrival of the baby Jesus. After extolling the virtue and necessity of waiting, why do we display the rose color and proclaim “Rejoice!” when we still have a little over a week left to “Repent!?” Well, I imagine it is akin to buying the perfect present for someone you love; you have spent a great deal of effort thinking about this person and have picked out the perfect gift. Yet the last box you saved to put it in and wrap is too small and you have no way to conceal it before putting it under the tree. So, you take it out and place it strategically in the room, unwrapped and exposed, but in an inconspicuous spot. Imagine the excitement, the thrill, the sheer joy of knowing this perfect gift is out in the open waiting for just the right moment when it can be presented. Will they notice it before it is time? Will this object receive an unknowing yet admiring glance from our loved one, confirming that this indeed was a good pick?
This, I would say, is what Gaudete Sunday is about. Today is a day not only of rejoicing but one of awareness; not so much an awareness of the big wrapped gift under the tree, the piece de resistance that we will receive in a little over a week’s time. But, rather, the multitude of gifts that have been strategically placed around us by God, with the hopes of not only drawing an admiring glance, but with the desire of being found early. Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, likened this to a mother delighting in the discovery of toddler. The toddler discovers a big, red, bouncy ball that has been strategically placed in a room, retrieves it and brings it with joy and excitement to its mother, sharing the discovery while the mother sits and expresses joy in the toddler’s delight.[ii] Today is a time when the penitiential character of Advent is suspended, if only for a moment, to give expression of joy for the mounting gifts that have been placed around us with hope that they will be found and enjoyed.
I think this is what we witness in our both our Old Testament lesson and the Gradual Canticle. We hear Isaiah testify poetically to joy when he says: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God….” And what is the reason for his rejoicing? He continues, “For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. “ Mary, just after she is visited by the angel Gabriel sings a song of joy: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And what is the reason for her song? “For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm. He has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.” Gaudete Sunday is a day of rejoicing and awareness!
But to be honest, sometimes we are blind to these gifts of joy or perhaps like a four year old have grown tired of the big, red, bouncy ball. Sometimes we can get caught up in looking for new things to thrill, stimulate, and delight in. We grow blind to the gifts that have been presented to us by the gracious hand of God, and seek to sustain our joy in the acquisition of the latest fad. And this is not surprising considering that we live in a consumer culture that promotes the idea that ‘he who dies with the most toys, wins!’ The American dream or what I consider the American ‘illusion,’ is that your worth is bound up in achievement, success, and what you can accumulate and display to others. Our society seems to favor those who have cultivated a great amount of success while denigrating those who just cannot seem to get their act together. We hear a message proclaimed from ocean to ocean that if you are poor, unhealthy, unsuccessful, then you are lazy, bad, immature, and quite frankly deserve your misfortune. This attitude of our own self-importance and the contempt for those who do not measure up breeds an atmosphere of segregation, desperation, and violence, not only in our country but beyond our borders.
Our gospel lesson today from John today does not contain the word ‘rejoice’ but it does give us a clue to God’s persistent desire for us to awaken from this dream, illusion, or even nightmare that we have been lost in. And we hear this expressed in one of the quintessential metaphors to God Emmanuel, that is ‘God with us’: Light. The gospel writer begins today’s lesson: ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.’ When John the Baptist began his ministry, he preached with great charisma and urgency that the Kingdom of God was at hand. When questioned by those who had come to hear him preach he says: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” That is, the wonderful gifts of the Kingdom of God are in front of you, now. In order to gain the awareness, all we have to do is turn around and focus on the ‘light.’
So how can we pray for the awareness of God in our midst, to the gifts of joy that have been so conspicuously placed all around us? Well first I would say pay attention to the light. Turn away from those things that are consuming our time and attention and look for what is teeming with the light of joy in your life. Just before the service began, I was in my cell and opened my blinds to behold the sight of the sun shining towards the opposite side of the Charles River which is beginning to freeze over slightly. The view was breathtaking. Perhaps you know the joy close relationships with family and friends. Delight in these, for Jesus has taught that we will see God most in the face and countenance of those we encounter from day to day. Or, second, I would have you consider a play on the word light. What is light in weight in your life? What do you carry around with you that delight in? How do you resemble the toddler with the big, red, bouncy, ball? What would you like to share with God that brings you joy? Chances are, God already knows about it, but would love to share in the joy with you.
It could be that you are in a place where there are just too many obstacle to your awareness. You’re caught in a time of bereavement, anxiety, and of fear. If this is the case, I would make this your prayer. Pray to God to shed light on those things that are too heavy for you to carry. Pray for God to enlighten you so that your joy may abound to the life, light, and love that God desires for you. During the Liturgy of the Table that will take place in a few moments, bring that which burdens you and give it to God. And then receive a piece of bread and a sip of wine, nourishment for the final leg of the pilgrimage to Bethlehem where Jesus will come into focus as God Emmanuel, God with us. Today is Gaudete Sunday, a day of awareness that begets rejoicing. Gaudete!
[i] Introit: Philippians 4:4-8; Psalm 85:1
[ii] “As a child delights to bring some new possession to a mother’s lap to show what it has got, and to rejoice in the loving smile with which it is welcomed, so must we bring very joy of our outer life to the loving eye of God. That eye will not disparage the joy of this state of earth, and that loving Father will welcome us as we come to Him to be the partner of our joy, because He is the author of all causes of rejoicing.” Instructions on the Religious Life, Second Series, p. 48.
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