Gaudete Sunday was originally a day to relax Advent penance and to rest, preparing ourselves for the final stretch of this penitential season.
The modern observance of Advent is often difficult to distinguish from the season of Christmas. The secular world is already in full party mode, with Christmas sweets, social celebrations and even gift-giving.
It’s almost laughable to think of Advent today as a season of penance and fasting.
Yet, for most of Christian history Advent was exactly that, a penitential season that was similar to Lent, though never as strict. It consisted of periodic fasting and personal sacrifices, traditions that are in stark contrast to the modern delicacies everyone enjoys throughout the month of December.
This is why Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, can be so confusing, as one of the original reasons behind this joyful Sunday was to relax the penances everyone was engaged in.
In the 1902 edition of the American Ecclesiastical Review, the author notes this aspect of Gaudete Sunday.
This spirit of self restraint belongs as has been said to Advent, which is a preparation for the Christmas joys. We are making ready for the reception of our Heavenly King coming to dwell with us for a time on earth and in our hearts permanently … But the season is long, the work tiresome, and the body weak. And as the laborer rests at times in the midst of his task to take a glance at what has been accomplished and to refresh himself with the anticipation of the joy that awaits him at the end of his work, so the Christian stops in the midst of Advent preparation to rehearse for a moment the sweet melody of coming Christmas chant and to take in the full meaning of the encouraging words of the Holy Spouse, his Mother the Church, as she calls out to her children, Gaudete, that is “Be joyful,” the Lord the Emmanuel your consolation and Savior is at hand.
While it may be difficult for us to reclaim the original spirit of Advent, we can make deliberate choices to hold off eating the Christmas cookies until Christmas Eve.
At the same time, we could also make Gaudete Sunday more joyful, indulging in some of our Christmas sweets on that day, while observing a more sombre Advent before and after.
Whatever we do, let us recall how our ancestors observed this sacred season and learn from them, understanding how we can prepare our hearts to better receive the graces of Christmas into our soul.