Third Sunday of Advent “Gaudete Sunday,” Year A: Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11.
Gaudéte in Dómino semper: íterum dico, gaudéte. Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say rejoice. This is the first line of the Introit to today’s Mass, marking the halfway point of Advent when we take a little break from the semi-penitent season to recall the joy of Christ’s coming into our hearts. The name for this special Sunday comes from the first word of the Introit, Rejoice!
I’ve been reflecting on the dual nature of Christ’s coming (the babe in the Nativity and the Judge at the End of Time) this Advent, but there is a third coming that Catholics are preparing in Advent: the coming of Christ in our hearts. Gaudete Sunday asks us directly to prepare our hearts by cultivating the joy that Christ’s coming will bring (and that we will allow to fully blossom in the Christmas liturgical season). Advent is a time to scour our hearts of sin, making them suitable for the Lord. Gaudete Sunday is a moment in Advent when we can align that preparation of the heart by remembering that joy is what awaits us, not just the continual work of penitential scouring.
So, today’s readings are chock-full of rejoicing. The first lines of Isaiah even extend rejoicing to all of creation: “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom.” I appreciate these reminders that it’s not just humanity that will be perfected in Christ but all of creation. God does have a special place in His heart for humanity, though (case in point: Jesus is incarnated as a man, not a goat or a tree), and the message for us involves our intellect, emotionality, and spirit: “say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God … He comes to save you.” This message never gets stale. It gave hope and confidence to Jews in exile hundreds of years before Christ, to early Christians suffering martyrdom, to Christians in the turbulence, disease, and violence of the Dark and Middle Ages, and to us moderns, assailed by a lust-filled, nihilist and atheistic culture. Apart from the 100,000-foot view of cultures and history, this message gives hope and confidence to all of us on an intensely personal level, whether we struggle with depression, family problems, money problems, or other uncertainties. God’s promise as proclaimed by Isaiah is a true celebration of the best in each of us, he promises that in heaven we “will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; [we] will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.” This promise of joy is so needed in all of our lives, and a huge reason that reading and re-reading the scriptures is important; not just for those looking for comfort, but for all of us who need to find perspective in our lives.
So, God is coming to save us, and Jesus has already initiated the Last Times. Awesome, let’s do this! What is God waiting for?? This question was especially poignant in the first generations after Christ’s resurrection, when they pondered his words, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt 24-34-35). There was a very real expectation that the second coming would happen at any minute. Thus, for Christians at all moments since the resurrection, St. James’s words in today’s second reading are very important: “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” This is echoed by other apostolic writers, notably St. John, who uses the word abide (“to stay,” “stand fast,” “remain” or “endure”) 34 times in his gospel and 19 times in his letters. Abiding and patience are both practices related to the virtue of fortitude – that is, not straying from the faith and the practice of the faith, remaining strong. James picks up this association with remaining strong: “Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” It is oh so easy for us to give up on things that don’t yield right away. Especially in today’s immediate gratification culture (heck, I find myself oddly impatient when an entire TV series isn’t available for immediate streaming all at once – having to wait a week for the next episode? The horror!). Thankfully, our history as God’s people provides us with the example and confidence that we can do it. As James says, “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” This is another reason why reading and re-reading the scriptures is so important for us. It helps us find courage and remember the example of those who have come before us. We are not in this alone and without a guide!
We even see the need for reassurance and confidence from the great John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. John sends some disciples to ask if Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. We are cultivating a sense of anticipation in Advent, but John was bursting with it. His whole life was oriented to this one thing. Jesus, consistent with his teaching that we will be judged by our fruits, responds: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” In other words, trust in the supernatural realities that are being revealed to you. What an interesting answer! He could have said, “yes,” and been done with it, but Jesus was always teaching, always consistent, always urging us to go deeper. His point was that we must meet God’s will with our own will – we must exercise the muscle of faith and enter into a spiritual dimension with God in order to perceive the truth about life.
Even just this experience of entering into faith is one that can give joy. We often give up in frustration over what we perceive to be the silence of God in our lives, but, once again, St. James tells us to cultivate patience and a firm heart! Developing a relationship with God, who doesn’t often answer questions head-on the way we wish He would, takes effort and openness, but even the journey has its rewards. As we open ourselves to supernatural realities and the mysterious presence of divinity, God immediately rewards us with an expanded sense of Him and the world. And let’s not imagine we’re in this alone, praying in the cell of our mind. The Church of which we are a part has been established as the bridegroom of Christ, where we meet him in joy and love. The rituals, sacraments, devotions, and prayer life of the Church as a body are where we encounter God in sight, sound, feeling, and even in our bodies through the Eucharist. If we are feeling dry in our spiritual life and lacking in patience with our faith, we must ask ourselves how often we are participating in the life-restoring activities of the Church and how open our hearts and minds are to those activities and sacraments. They are great joy bringers for us in this time of patience.
One last thing is something that really stuck with me from our pastor Fr. Gabriel Mosher, OP, in his homily for this Gaudete Sunday. He asked if we really knew what joy was and had we considered that Christ had achieved perfect joy as he hung crucified on the Cross. This is, of course, a Thomist definition of joy: “For joy is caused by love, either through the presence of the thing loved, or because the proper good of the thing loved exists and endures in it” (Summa II.II.28.1). As he hung on the Cross, Jesus obtained his heart’s desire, a perfect sacrifice to the Father that provided salvation for humanity. This is a great lesson for us, where suffering is joined to joy when it is offered to the Father. I’m not trying to be a “downer” amid our joyful celebration of Gaudete Sunday, but I was struck by how Fr. Gabriel expanded my notion of what joy can be and also further deepened my appreciation for Jesus and the depth of his sacrifice for humanity. This is a powerful way to look at the Crucifixion, a scene which is often dominated by sorrow, upset, and emptiness. How important for us to consider that Jesus experienced a powerful joy over the completion of his ministry and doing God’s will. How fruitful is the contemplation of this type of joy, which so dwarfs the suffering and ignominy, the joy that persists for eternity with the Father while those other things pass like a whisper in the night.