3rd Sunday of Advent – December 13, 2016
“Rejoice in the Lord always; I say it again, rejoice.”
This command of St. Paul in today’s second reading proclaims the theme of the liturgy of the Third Sunday of Advent, traditionally referred to as Gaudete Sunday – Gaudete being the Latin imperative to Rejoice. We Christians are encouraged by the Church to “rejoice always” because, as St. Paul goes on to say. “The Lord Himself is near.” Thus it is a Messianic joy that Paul is speaking about here, and it echoes the beautiful words of Zephaniah in today’s first reading, which is itself clearly a Messianic prophecy and the basis of his call to Israel to “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart.”
And once again the reason for this exuberant joy is exactly what Paul indicated, because, says Zephaniah, “the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst.” Moreover, St. Paul assures us that because the Lord is near, we should not only rejoice but “have no anxiety at all;” and Zephaniah explains why this is true, when he says, because “you have no further misfortune to fear.” Christmas is the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies; and thus we should rejoice with all our heart because we have nothing more to fear, for the Lord is now in our midst in a way that even the prophets could not foresee. He has become one us, our God and our brother.
Moreover, there is another most interesting dimension of this theme of Messianic joy that we see in this beautiful prophecy from Zephaniah who tells us that our joy actually is anticipated by God’s own joy in the work He is accomplishing in our midst. Zephaniah says, “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior” and then he surprisingly adds: he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.”
How incredible is this assertion of the prophet! God is actually rejoicing over us! God is singing joyfully because of us! That is to say, God rejoices before we do, and he rejoices because of what he is doing for us. And what is that work he does? Zephaniah fills us in: first, “The LORD has removed the judgment against you;” secondly, “he has turned away your enemies;” thirdly, God is the “mighty savior” who will “renew you in his love.” Everything, then, is to our benefit, and God rejoices for that very reason. And we must rejoice as well or we would be most ungrateful children. We have nothing to fear ever, no reason ever for anxiety, for this great work of our God is without end, and he will never abandon us to our enemies again.
This same theological reasoning can be seen in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, where he exhorts Christians to be filled at every moment, “always,” with that Messianic joy that Zephaniah could only long for, but would never experience it as we can and should. All that he looked forward to has now taken place, and that means that for us this joy can no longer simply be a joy only hoped for in the future, although we know that it will even greater in heaven. But rather it must be a constant joy and the dominant spirit of Christians already here and now. The “Mighty Savior” of Zephaniah is no longer simply a distant hope for the future, but, as Paul says, He is with us now, and His peace is in us now, guarding our hearts and minds, fulfilling what the earlier prophet foretold, “he has turned away your enemies.”
It’s also true, of course, that we do look forward to a joy that is pure, unalloyed with any sorrow, which can never be quenched, a joy that no one will have to encourage us to feel, for it will simply be the constant response of a heart overwhelmed by the ever presence and greatness of God’s Love.
But even now, where our joy is not yet perfect, since it is often combined or alloyed with very real human sorrows and severely tested by great misfortunes, still, our faith tells us that Christian joy cannot be totally suppressed. Even in great afflictions, joy is still possible, even if dampened by sorrow, for we know by our faith all that Jesus has done for us, and will do for us in the world to come. Joy is the natural result which follows from that faith and our grateful love for the One who has loved us without counting the cost, unto death, and has done so for our Salvation.
When you meet a Christian who has such faith, gratitude and love, you also encounter this unique Christian joy that Paul speaks of, and even commands. You meet a person who can smile in the midst of tears, and whose spirit cannot be broken by the misfortunes of this life. The joyful Christian does not escape suffering and the grief of loss, but such a believer will never lose the real even if imperfect joy that follows from faith and hope; faith that sorrow will be more than compensated by the Lord; faith that no loss is permanent; hope that the loved one is now in a better world; hope that there is a happiness waiting that s beyond the capacity of this world to produce.
However, not everyone is open to joy because not everyone believes, and not everyone who does believe is happy to have the Lord come near. For instance, when the tax collectors came to John to be baptized, he told them that they had to repent, or they would not be ready for the Lord who was near. He told the soldiers and tax collectors to stop extorting their neighbors and take only the fixed amount, no bribes, no extortion. Those who agreed to give up their sinful ways would not fear to have Christ came near. They would be open to the joy of having Christ come near.
But others, including many among the Pharisees and Sadducees would not repent, and so they were not prepared, and were cut off from His joy. Unfortunately, not even John’s dreadful warnings that the Messiah would burn the chaff in unquenchable fire caused them to repent and come to know His salvation and the joy that accompanies it. Their hardness of heart barred them from the Kingdom, and thus from His joy.
What we learn from all this is that Christian joy can take hold only in repentant hearts and souls that truly treasure heaven and God’s love more than all else, hearts and souls that are first filled with faith, hope and love. True Christian joy simply cannot be found in a heart that does not place God and God’s Kingdom first, above all other things. “Seek first the Kingdom of God” was the clear command of Jesus.
Nor can God’s joy be found in a heart that is not totally submissive to the will of God as expressed in His commandments. Christian Joy can coexist in a heart and soul tormented with sorrow and pain, and even coexist at the same time. But such joy cannot coexist with a refusal to repent for sin. Christian joy cannot be extinguished by anything except sin and alienation from God. Christian joy is, by its very nature, a permanent possession because it comes not from the world, but from God, who has first rejoiced to see us liberated from sin, the enemy of the heart and mind. God rejoiced that we might also rejoice.
From the depths of our being, then, we all long for this unquenchable joy, even if we do not yet possess it, or do not yet possess it perfectly. It is this great joy that Christmas heralds and can touch, if only briefly, the soul that is still distant from God but not altogether lost. May our Advent preparation bring us an increase in this Christmas joy, deepen this divine gift and make it flourish in our love of the Lord.