Whereas the lectionary readings for the two previous Sundays have contained dire warnings about what is in store for us all if we fail to adequately prepare for Christ’s coming, today’s readings leaven these warnings with joy, a foretaste of the “good tidings” for which Christmas is known. The traditional nickname Gaudete Sunday for the Third Sunday of Advent reflects this, as does the use of rose-pink as a supplementary liturgical color to the usual Advent purple. (Many of our High Church Protestant brothers and sisters use deep blue as the Advent color rather than purple, but in the Catholic Church purple is to be preferred because it keeps the emphasis on the season’s penitential character.)
The sequence of today’s readings is by now familiar to us from the previous two Advent Sundays: A passage from Isaiah, then of course the Epistle, then a passage from Matthew’s Gospel, The main difference between Gaudete Sunday and the other Year A Advent Sundays comes, when one looks at it this way, in the use of the Epistle of James rather than St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. There is something “this-worldly” about James, which has an exceptionally strong focus on faith as lived out in works and in particular on God’s favor towards the poor and downtrodden, that seems to suit Gaudete Sunday’s focus on God’s immanent movement in the world.
James’s focus on saving acts and works of charity here in this life is furthered in the reading from Matthew, where we see Jesus sending a message to John the Baptist stressing his earthly ministry, his acts of healing. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that with these readings we see the theological foci of Ordinary Time shifted into a more exalted register. With Gaudete Sunday we have a series of readings that care as much about the nitty-gritty of following Christ here on earth as do the parables and miracles that characterize long Ordinary Time summers.
John the Baptist is not usually a figure associated with the emotion of joy, but his exchange with Jesus in today’s Gospel belies his ultra-harsh reputation. John has been waiting for Jesus’ coming just as we have; although he knows Jesus from his mother’s womb, he is evidently not privy to the complete details of Jesus’ mission on earth in the way that, say, Mary is, since he needs to ask “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” (Mt. 11:3). Jesus’ response is remarkably upbeat, enthusiastic even, a positive assessment of his own mission and a highly complimentary remark about John as a person. It’s difficult not to crack a smile at the high esteem in which these two men, bound both by human connections (they are cousins) and by divine destiny, yet very different in temperament and lifestyle, hold each other. John is in prison at this point, soon to be executed in connection with his criticism of King Herod Antipas’s immoral marriage, yet still he waits and watches eagerly for Jesus to commence the ministry that he has foretold.
Theologians of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were always lobbing accusations back and forth about who was and was not sufficiently concerned with the role of grace in justification, that is, with the extent to which our salvation is freely offered by God rather than merited on our part. Canon after canon of the Council of Trent anathematizes hyper-specific heretical formulations on this subject. This is an important topic and one that has fed into many of the theological and cultural problems besetting historically Protestant countries to this day (Luther supposedly wanted to excise James from the Biblical canon the way he did the Apocrypha, but could not find a reasonable textual basis on which to do so). However, eventually we need to start looking at problems of faith and works and justification in more practical terms: what do we need to do to follow Christ, to follow John the Baptist to Christ, to follow Mary to Christ?
Gaudete Sunday helps us to start thinking about this—live life with joy, trust in God even in seemingly impossible straits, work for healing and for good news for the poor. The impetus to do all this comes itself, of course, from God, ultimately. Sometimes it comes directly, sometimes indirectly through our own natures, which are themselves creations of God in the beginning. Now, that’s cause for joy.
Image: An atypically upbeat and sociable John the Baptist from the Italian Renaissance painter Marco Palmezzano. From Wikimedia Commons.
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.