Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Responsorial Luke 1:46-48-50, 53-54
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
“Gaudete in Domino semper” states the Introit (opening antiphon) in Latin at the beginning of this Sunday’s Mass, a Sunday we call Gaudete Sunday. The Latin urges us to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and the liturgy seeks to remind us that we are preparing for the very joyful occasion of the birth of Jesus. To highlight the joy we are meant to feel on this Sunday we light the rose candle on the Advent Wreath, and the priest may wear rose vestments. The common theme of the day’s Scripture readings is one of joy and encouragement. A second theme on this Sunday is that of bearing witness, and the liturgy presents to us the figures of the prophet Isaiah, Mary, Paul and John the Baptizer, all of whom bore joyful witness to what God has done and will do for His people.
While the rather severe figure of John the Baptist continues to dominate the landscape of today’s liturgy, the Mother of God sneaks into the responsorial psalm with the joy-filled words of the Magnificat, her song of praise and thanksgiving for what God has done for her in choosing her to be the mother of God’s son. It is infrequent in our liturgies for New Testament texts to provide the psalm response, and even more infrequent for a gospel text to perform that role. But notice how closely Mary’s prayer echoes the words of Isaiah the prophet who can state “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.” Isaiah was preaching at a less than idyllic time. The Jewish people had returned from their rather lengthy exile and were making an effort to re-establish themselves in their homeland. It was a turbulent and challenging time, and yet Isaiah could be encouraging and joyful.
Mary, too, was called by God to cooperate with God’s grace and play a pivotal role in salvation history in less than ideal times, in less than idyllic circumstances. She would give birth to the Savior in the humble surroundings of a stable at a time when the politics of her country were volatile and unstable, and the religious leadership was fragmented and contentious. It is at this same time that John the Baptist is called to “testify to the light,” and be “the voice of one crying out in the desert.” They too could be joyful and filled with hope in the most challenging of circumstances.
Finally, Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians [the oldest book of the New Testament] also tells his listeners to “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.” St. Paul was keenly aware of a turbulent, messy, and chaotic world. The earliest Christian communities resulting from the preaching of Paul and the apostles were overwhelmed at times with developing a distinctively Christian identity. With the knowledge of the persecutions that would lie ahead we can be certain that life was challenging for the early Christians, but they too were called to be joyful.
Subtle as it is, there is a message in today’s liturgy that acknowledges that in every age, in every person’s life, there are challenges and difficulties. Regardless of how extreme those challenges might appear to be, regardless of their tendency to overwhelm and depress us, we are called as Christians to be joyful and be filled with hope. That is how we bear witness to God and acknowledge what he has done for us. Like the prophets of old, like Mary and John the Baptist, like Paul and the apostles, and the countless number of saints who have given witness down through the centuries, we are meant to be steadfastly joyful. To succumb to the pressures of a world where justice seems to be a far off dream, a world where both politics and religion divides, is not an option for the person who is Christian. Let us be the instruments of joy that God intends us to be. May we be encouraged by the words of our second reading today: “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will accomplish it.”