“Rejoice” seems like strange advice coming from a man in prison facing the possibility of the death penalty, but that’s exactly what Saul of Tarsus told the people of Philippi about 50 years after the death of Christ.
Better known to us as St. Paul, writer of the Letter to the Philippians (among other books of the New Testament), he gave thanks for the people in the Christian community he established, consoled them that they had been granted the opportunity to suffer for the sake of Christ, and urged them to rejoice. His words have echoed in the Church down through the centuries so that we, too, will say them on Sunday: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.”
This is the entrance antiphon for the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudate Sunday, whose name is taken from the Latin word for “rejoice.” For the first time this season we will light the Advent wreath’s rose candle, whose hue reflects anticipated joy, and during the Liturgy of the Word we will be told to shout for joy, to exult, to rejoice and be glad, for among us is the Savior.
Among us, too, is the cry from outside the walls of the church to rock around the Christmas tree, that grandma got run over by a reindeer and Santa’s on his way. We are shopping for Christmas presents, attending holiday parties and greeting family and friends with good cheer.
All this is in contrast to the liturgical color of Advent, which, except for Gaudate Sunday, cloaks us in the purple of penitence. We are reminded that we are not to become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness, that we have worn a robe of mourning and misery, that we must determine whether we have, in fact, built our house solidly on the rock of the Word. These four weeks preceding Christmas are meant to be spent preparing to receive our Savior. Only when we have examined our lives, swept out the selfishness and turned back to God can we look forward to the salvation promised by the birth of the Christ Child. We will rejoice at the birth of the child, certainly, but we must never forget that the babe in the manger grows up to be the crucified man who dies on the cross, whose suffering we are called to share, as Paul reminds us.
The babe in the manger was not the focus of the two prisoners from whom we will hear this Sunday. Paul, expecting and hoping that Christ would be magnified in his body, whether by life or by death, counseled his followers to rejoice; we will hear this in the second reading. By contrast, John the Baptist, of whom we will hear in the Gospel, had only questions for Christ: “Why are you coming to me to be baptized when you should baptize me?” “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
In answer to the first question, Christ tells John that they must submit to the plan of God, allowing Jesus to be identified with sinners and like them washed clean through baptism. But Jesus does not answer the second question “because only John can give the answer: it is he who must take the responsibility of choosing who to await,” said Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of Jerusalem, in 2016 in his meditation for the third Sunday of Advent.
Like John, we too must decide what we are waiting for this Advent season: Is it the pile of gaily wrapped presents under the tree, the table laden with a feast of good foods, the cheerful gathering of friends and family? All of these are worthy of partaking, of course, but they should not distract us from the infant we are asked to take into our heart. This is the child who, properly nourished, will grow and give us the strength and wisdom to love God and neighbor, to look not only to the cross but beyond it to salvation. It is this that John, deep in Herod’s dungeon, longed for; it is this that Paul saw, sitting in his jail cell, and so it is this that caused him to rejoice, to consider death as gain, to experience the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. This is the true gift of Christmas.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.