Third Sunday of Advent (C) | Fr Gregory Pearson considers the call to rejoice in today’s Liturgy, and considers the present good that we already enjoy.
What sort of things do you enjoy? Each of us will have things that come to mind in answer to that question, but I suspect for most of us they will be experiences of some kind or other which make us feel good, from playing sport to reading books to seeing our family happily spending time together. That is the primary meaning of enjoyment, and it’s not surprising that those are the kinds of answers we give. It’s what makes some of the other senses of ‘enjoyment’ in English sound a bit strange. After all, we can take about enjoying good health, or even enjoying a right of access over our neighbour’s property, where it’s fairly clear we’re not talking about an emotional response to pleasant experiences. What this kind of enjoyment seems to have in common with our more usual idea is the sense that there is something good which is currently present to us: I enjoy seeing my family happy while they are happy and I can see it, and I enjoy my right of access along my neighbour’s drive while I’m able to exercise it. We wouldn’t describe our attitude to the second situation as one of joy – perhaps quiet contentment at best – but then, maybe that’s because, in the grand scheme of things, property rights are not among the most important good things in our lives. What these different senses of enjoyment help us to see, though, is that the meaning of joy is connected up with our response to something good that is present.
Thus, in today’s first reading, Zephaniah calls on the daughter of Zion to shout for joy because ‘the Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst’ (Zeph 3:15). It is the news of God’s present amongst his people that is to be for them the source of joy. In the responsorial “psalm” too (in fact, a passage from the prophet Isaiah), the people of Zion are to ‘sing and shout for joy, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel’ (Is 12:6).
The question that springs to mind is why joy at God’s presence should be the theme of the liturgy of this Third Sunday of Advent, or Gaudete (‘Rejoice’) Sunday, as it’s known. Of course, from the perspective of 2018 we know that the Incarnation, God’s coming to dwell among us, is something that has already happened, but isn’t Advent meant to be a time of anticipation, of learning that longing for the Messiah before we get to celebrate the fulfilment of that longing at Christmas? Wouldn’t hope – our attitude to a good which we do not yet enjoy – be a more obvious theme for this season?
A first answer might be that these passages of Scripture speaking of joy at God’s presence among his people are both from the Old Testament. In the case of Isaiah, the words form part of a prophecy: they are what the people ‘will say in that day’ (Is 12:3) when the shoot comes forth from the stock of Jesse (cf. Is 11:1). The words of Zephaniah come in the midst of his prophecy of the day of the Lord. As we prepare to celebrate that day when the Word of God took flesh and dwelt amongst us, we call to mind the joy which the prophets foretold with anticipation as the response of God’s people to his coming to redeem them.
More than simply preparing us for Christmas, though, Advent also reminds us of the in-between situation we find ourselves in, after Christ’s first coming but awaiting his second coming, redeemed by his saving Incarnation, Death and Resurrection, but awaiting the full working out of all that that entails for humanity and for the whole of creation. We rejoice at his presence in the Sacraments and in the Holy Spirit given to the Church, even as we wait and hope to hear those words, ‘well done, good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of your master’ (Mt 25:21). In the reading we heard from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he instructs them always to rejoice even as he reminds them the Lord is at hand (Phil 4:4,5). It is what God has already given to us, what already now we can rejoice in, that enables us to prepare with hope for that day on which, as St John the Baptis’s words in the Gospel remind us, he will ‘gather the wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out’ (Lk 3:17).
On this Sunday, when the priest’s rose coloured vestments mix the darkness of penitential purple with festive white, that colour expresses the joy which is already ours even as we still recognise the struggles and fears of this life in anticipation of that fullness of joy which God’s coming among us teaches to await ‘with blessed hope’ (Titus 2:13).
Readings: Zeph 3:14-18 | Phil 4:4-7 | Luke 3:10-18
Thank you from Torch!
Thank you for your generous support of Torch, and your kind words concerning our sermons. We are grateful for all that we receive from our readers, and we have achieved our target once again with your help. From the Dominican friars in England and Scotland, we wish you and yours a blessed and holy Christmas, and an abundance of graces for 2019.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the Advent wreath on Gaudete Sunday in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC.