The Joy of a World Transformed
Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday). Fr Dominic Ryan considers the difference between Christ and John the Baptist as the key to understanding Advent joy.
Today we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent, better known as ‘Gaudete Sunday.’ It’s called ‘Gaudete Sunday’ because it’s named from the Latin word for rejoice which we find in the entrance antiphon. So we’re supposed to rejoice today, to be happy, but why? Advent as a whole is about expecting and preparing. That expectation and preparation, however, has a twofold character: expectation and preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas, his birth; but also expectation and preparation for the second coming of Christ at the end of the world. So during Advent we’re not just looking towards Christmas, but we’re also looking beyond that to Christ’s second coming at the end of time. And whilst the best way to try and prepare ourselves during Advent for these events is to go to confession and try and be contrite about our sinfulness, nevertheless on Gaudete Sunday we take a step back from that penitential atmosphere, so we can allow ourselves to experience that joy and gladness which Christ’s coming holds out to us. And that’s why we use rose coloured vestments today, to symbolise our rejoicing. But what is it that we are rejoicing about and why should it make us happy?
Today’s gospel uses the contrast between Our Lord and John the Baptist to help us understand what is going on. First, we should note, they both had a long history together, going right back to their childhoods. Their relationship, therefore, was not casual or insignificant; it was deep rooted. Thus when Mary discovered her friend Elizabeth was pregnant she came to visit Elizabeth to offer her support. That decision to offer support, however, led to the occasion of an even more important event, the first meeting of Our Lord and John the Baptist. Thus John, as he experienced the presence of the Lord in the womb of Mary for the first time, famously leapt for joy in the womb of his own mother Elizabeth and thus began the relationship between the two as John realised all the good work the Lord would do.
Nor would John’s contribution to that work be insignificant. He represented the culmination of all that was good in Israel. He represented the culmination of prophecy in Israel. He called Israel to repentance and as we can see in the gospel he exhorted Israel to moral behaviour, insisting that people should be just, honest, and generous. But as important as all that John did was, moral goodness alone – which effectively was what John preached – would not change the world. There is no shortage of morally good people who can testify to this. Moral goodness alone, for all its value and importance, won’t free human beings from sin and it certainly won’t make eternal life with God possible. For that something more is needed and that’s what Our Lord offered through his life, death, and resurrection. The grace unleashed by Our Lord’s sacrifice perfected our moral life, it elevated our nature, and it made possible eternal life with God.
And if this doesn’t make us happy then I don’t know what else will. Because after all the point of Christ’s coming is to renew the world and ourselves and this renewal won’t just be in some modest or insignificant way. It won’t be the sort of thing we have in mind when we say, ‘well, things could be better’. Rather, when we focus on the ultimate point of Christ’s coming and allow ourselves to rest contentedly in the joy that this should provoke in us, then we will realise that what’s envisaged here is a fundamental change that overthrows the effects of sin in ourselves and in the world and after which nothing will ever be the same again. No one will need ever to wish that things could be better for them in any way at all. Everything will be as God always intended things should be and all of us will be better for that.
So today then let’s pray for the coming of Our Lord. Let’s immerse ourselves in the joy that this gives rise to and let this be our springboard to ever better discipleship.
Image: Detail from ‘Roses for Our Lady’ by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.