"A cheery outlook is not necessarily a Christian virtue."
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.
Indeed, the Lord is near.
– Philippians 4:4-5;
Entrance Antiphon for the Third Sunday of Advent
On this Third Sunday of Advent, the Church gives us a very particular mandate: Rejoice! And, during these pre-Christmas days, it seems that there is joy all around us. And yet, the essayist William Stringfellow makes a poignant observation that should give us pause: “For the greeting card sentiment and sermonic rhetoric, I do not think that much rejoicing happens around Christmastime, least of all about the coming of the Lord. There is, I notice, a lot of holiday frolicking, but that is not the same as rejoicing. In any case, maybe the outbursts of either frolicking and rejoicing are premature, if John the Baptist has credibility. He identifies repentance as the sentiment of Advent” (from Advent as a Penitential Season).
The themes of judgment, repentance, and salvation preached by John the Baptist seem to be at odds with the spirit of Christian joy to which we are also called on this Gaudete Sunday. But there John is, announcing the coming of the Christ, calling his hearers—and us—to lead lives worthy of the new age of the Messiah.
How can we reconcile these seemingly disconnected ideas of repentance and joy? We do this by remembering that what we commemorate at Christmas has already happened: God is in our midst. John’s clarion call for repentance is an invitation for us to acknowledge the presence of Christ among us now and to live accordingly. As Thomas Merton reflected, “The ‘King who is to come’ is more than a charming smiling infant in the straw … In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to his presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies.”
Our awareness of God’s presence among us—even with our busy schedules and demanding responsibilities—is what enables us to find joy in what we do and to hope and trust that our work to build up God’s Kingdom will bear fruit in ways we simply cannot imagine.
This same sense of hope inspired Isaiah to see the promise of life hidden in barren deserts and in broken bodies and relationships. He understood that, in God’s time, God would renew and restore all of creation, especially by lifting up those who were sick and most in need: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul … As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations” (61:10a, 11).
In the end, Advent hope and joy are not only focused on the approach of Christmas Day. No, we rejoice because God has kept his promises and has given us love and truth in Jesus: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus … The one who calls you is faithful” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, 24a).
For what are you grateful on this Third Sunday of Advent?
How have you experienced God’s transforming presence and power in your life?
How do you share the joy of your faith with others?
Words of Wisdom: “Beyond the baptism of repentance and its freeing joy is a further ‘baptism’ with the ‘Holy Spirit and fire’ that the Christ brings. Followers of Jesus will be empowered by the Spirit, who emboldens them for all manner of ministries. They will undergo a purification process, a winnowing away of any imperfections that impede God’s love and joy … it is a refining for all who turn to Christ, a burning away of all that keeps us from experiencing God’s delight and from knowing how to share that with others. This, then, is what distinguishes joy from optimism. A cheery outlook is not necessarily a Christian virtue. But a radical joy that accompanies a refinement by fire is one of the paradoxical hallmarks of our faith.”—Barbara E. Reid, O.P. in Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year C