Second in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday)
Readings: Zephaniah 3;14-18a; Philippians 4;4-7; Luke 3:10-18
Today is Gaudete Sunday, the “midpoint” of Advent where we anticipate the joyful celebration of Christmas. Even use of the ordinary liturgical color of violet may be suspended today in favor of rose-colored vestments. The word gaudete – meaning “rejoice” – is taken from the beginning of the Entrance Chant for today’s mass, which is the same as that of today’s Second Reading: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” This is the command of Saint Paul that links our First Reading – Zephaniah’s joyful prophecy of the coming eternal King – and the Gospel – John the Baptist’s proclamation of the arrival of the One stronger in the Spirit than he is. In the midst of our preparations for the coming of Christ, we are called upon by the prophets of all the covenants to rejoice and to be glad.
And why? Because, as Saint Paul says in his letter, “the Lord is near.” He is as near to us as He was to the people of Jerusalem in Zephaniah’s time, as He was to the people of Judea in the Baptist’s time, as He was to the Church at Philippi in Paul’s time. His arrival is imminent – and He will be here before we know it.
And how are we to rejoice? How are we to act as we wait for the long-expected God? In Zephaniah’s time, before the exile, the people were called upon to shout and to sing, like people who have been freed from their debts and from their enemies – and the eternal King will join in sing with them “as one sings as festivals.” But in the Baptist’s time, during the Roman occupation of Judea, the people were called upon to share their belongings, to treat others fairly, and to repent of their failings in the sight of God – and the Mighty One will come to gather those who have done these works and to cast away those who have not.
At first glance it may seem like a lot has changed in 650 years. Yet our Second Reading holds the key to understanding how these two ways are really the same way; for Saint Paul, in his command to rejoice, says, “Your kindness should be known to all.” This “kindness” – epeikes in the original Greek, then in Latin modestia – means fairness, the sort of fairness that comes from what is appropriate to a given situation. It is equity in judgment, the same sort of equity with which God Himself treats us, with which He is said to judge all peoples. It is an unconditional justice born of unconditional love, the judgment that is forever in synch with that supreme attribute of almighty God that we celebrate and contemplate this year – His unfathomable mercy.
This is why the people of Zephaniah’s time could rejoice in the shouts and songs of free people, and why the people of the Baptist’s time could rejoice in repentance and alms-giving. Both sets of actions speak to the limitless compassion of the God Whose arrival is imminent. And this is why Saint Paul could exhort the people of Philippi to “[h]ave no anxiety at all, but in everything…make your requests known to God.” In all circumstances, our every action should be directed towards harmony with our King and savior, Who is coming to us to bring us His love beyond depth and His peace beyond understanding.
So sing, share, repent, be free – rejoice! “The Lord is near.” 🙂