A reflection on the readings of December 17, 2023 — The Third Sunday of Advent
At Mass last Sunday, as we were listening to the second reading, there was the unmistakable sound of a happy child. It took a moment to figure out what was happening, but soon enough we saw a little boy gleefully running up the side aisle here, pursued by his dad. I watched him make the turn around the organ and hot foot it up into the sanctuary where he just stopped and sat down like a runner who had just broken the tape to win the race.
In the moments before his dad came and scooped him up, I was struck by the look on the little guy’s face, a look of pure happiness and accomplishment, like he’d gotten to where he wanted to be. I looked up at the faces in the pews in front of me to find that everyone was grinning as big as I was. Yes, it was a bit of a disruption of the Mass, but it was impossible to not appreciate the joy radiating from that little face.
We’re all called to that kind of joy too. This third Sunday of Advent is “Gaudete Sunday,” when the penitential purple gives way to the warmth of the rose-colored vestments and candles that serve as a sign of encouragement that our goal is in sight. The word “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice.” During Lent, the fourth Sunday is known as “Laetare Sunday,” the only other day we wear the rose-colored vestments, so it’s no surprise that “Laetare” is another Latin word for “rejoice.”
Just because the Church specifically tags two Sundays with the “rejoice” label doesn’t mean that the other 50 Sundays can’t be occasions of rejoicing as well. In all my years of sitting in the pews and the last ten-plus years being here in the sanctuary, I can’t help but notice the people with crossed arms and straight-line mouths that make it seem like Mass is a chore rather than a celebration. It’s like being grumpy at a wedding reception.
“Rejoice!” We hear that in today’s second reading, but St. Paul uses this word 22 times in his letters and he tells us, like he told the Thessalonians, Philippians, Romans, Galatians, Corinthians, and Colossians, to rejoice always, Gaudete semper: Rejoice in hope, rejoice in suffering, rejoice in obedience, rejoice in the truth. Rejoice that the Lord is near. Indeed, St. Paul tells us that rejoicing is God’s will for us.
If rejoicing is God’s will for us, why is it that joy so often eludes us? Perhaps St. Paul is onto something when he says that rejoicing isn’t a solo thing. As we heard today, he writes “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
He’s describing a three-legged stool here. Each of the legs – rejoicing, prayer, thanksgiving – makes it possible for the other two to stand. Without all three, it topples.
So many people today are unhappy, and I think that’s because they’ve abandoned prayer at the altar of self-reliance. They abstain from thanksgiving because they make themselves the arbiter of the world and find it lacking. And they substitute transient pleasure for lasting joy. We have become unmoored and find ourselves drifting, and we look to what’s close at hand in an effort to regain our bearings. But what’s close at hand is ephemeral. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”
I tend to think of our modern times as the culprit, with all the phones and tablets in our hands and the internet where we can lose ourselves in senseless scrolling or fall into echo chambers that amplify our impulses. Reliance on technology and the loss of genuine human community is real, but it’s not new. Almost 50 years ago, Pope Paul VI wrote in his apostolic exhortation Gaudete in Domino (On Christian Joy), “Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. For joy comes from another source. It is spiritual. Money, comfort, hygiene, and material security are often not lacking; and yet boredom, depression and sadness unhappily remain the lot of many.” What he said in 1975 is even more true today.
Internet algorithms are designed to give us more of the last thing we looked at, and they do a really good job of further entrenching us along that path. Once entrenched, we become less and less open to other ways of looking at the world. This is the attitude of the priests and Levites who came to John in today’s Gospel. They knew what they knew, and their questions weren’t meant for them to learn, but were instead accusations. It was kind of like the comments section on a website today.
“Who are you?”
“What are you then? Are you Elijah?”
“Are you the Prophet?”
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”
John’s response to every question pointed away from him and to Jesus, the one who was to come.
“I am not the Christ.”
“I am not.”
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’” as Isaiah the prophet said.”
“I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
Like so many of us today, the priests and Levites had entrenched ideas that left them unable to be open to a new or different way of thinking. John, on the other hand, focused on the Lord himself rather than his notion of the Lord. And that made all the difference.
I’ve been talking with friends about recent developments in the Church, bishops being removed and the like, and I was blessed to hear from one of my Catholic podcasts the challenge “If you’re spending more time reading blogs than the Gospel, you might want to rethink your priorities.” I loved that.
Pope Francis began his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium with “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”
Joy becomes lacking when we focus on the moment rather than the eternal. Our present moment will always have unsettling elements to it, but the Gospel and what Jesus teaches us is what’s lasting and what should be the foundation of our lives rather than the “outrage of the day” as reported by the internet or social media.
Think about it – does reading the Gospel ever get you spun up like a Tweet or blog post might? Nope. The Gospel may challenge you in some ways, but only to make you think more deeply about who you are and how you live in relation to God and his plan for you. If the Gospel had a comments feature, what would you write?
Perhaps the Gospel does have a comments section, and that it’s how you live your life. So, what are you going to write?
Fortunately, St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, gives us a three-part writing prompt: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks.
First, rejoice always. Every Mass is a sharing of the eternal banquet in Heaven. Bring yourself to it like you would to an eagerly anticipated party. Let the buzz and the joy of that party remain with you in the week to come, and let the joy of it inform how you encounter people and situations.
Second, pray without ceasing. Stay close to God throughout each day. If you pray the Mass rather than simply attend the Mass, the closeness to God lingers and will be sustained by being mindful of him and his presence in every moment of your life. That is the essence of prayer. We can start each day with a Morning Offering like that of Fr. Gautrelet:
“Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, for the salvation of souls, the reparation of sins, the reunion of all Christians, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father this month.”
Starting the day with a prayer like that can anchor you and your day with the Lord. A day lived in mindfulness with God is a day lived in prayer.
Third, in all circumstances give thanks. In Psalm 50, God acknowledges all the bulls and goats and blood offered in sacrifice, all the prayers and recitations of the law by his people, but concludes “The sacrifice that honors me is a thankful heart.”
Even if thankfulness shows up third on St. Paul’s list, I submit it’s a great place to start. A thankful heart lets you open your eyes each morning and make that morning offering, and it gives you the place from which rejoicing springs.
It should not be lost upon us that the word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” The Savior whom John foretold in today’s Gospel is the Jesus who at the Last Supper gave us his body, blood, soul, and divinity for the salvation of our own souls. This is the Eucharist we receive at Mass. How could you believe and not be thankful?
A heart that is thankful, a heart that is connected with God through prayer, cannot be anything but joyful. May this Gaudete Sunday be our springboard to the close of Advent, our celebration of the birth of our Lord, and a joyful anticipation of the day when we see our Redeemer face to face.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Marco Sete.
Deacon Steve O’Neill was ordained for service to the Archdiocese of Washington in June 2013 and serves at St. Andrew Apostle in suburban Maryland. After four years in the Marine Corps and three years at the University of Maryland (where met Traci, now his wife of 30+ years, and earned a degree in English), he has worked as an analyst with the Federal government. Deacon Steve and Traci have two sons and two daughters and three grandchildren.