3rd Sunday in Advent (A) (Gaudete Sunday)
Sisters and brothers, have you ever come across people leaving their dogs outside a store or a restaurant, while they go in to shop or eat? It’s not so common here in Singapore. But I once lived in a place where this happened quite frequently. And I remember being fascinated by the different reactions of those poor dogs. Some of them would just lie down on the ground, put their heads on their paws, and look really depressed at being left behind. Others did the exact opposite. They became very excited and distracted by everything around them. Sniffing at the trees, the dustbins, and the people passing by. You just knew that, if they weren’t on a leash, they’d probably run off without turning back. Then there were also the really impatient and demanding ones. Who wouldn’t stop barking loudly. Until their owners came out to get them.
But, every so often, if you were really lucky, you’d come across a dog who behaved quite differently from all the rest. This fellow neither barks nor makes a fuss. It doesn’t get impatient or distracted. Nor does it look depressed. On the contrary, even though it’s left outside, the dog remains calm. Its attention focused on one thing. Its body is positioned firmly in the direction of the doorway through which its owner entered. And, if there is a glass window, the dog keeps looking through it eagerly. Carefully scanning the interior. Watching for signs of its master.
What I find most impressive of all is that, very often, even while it watches and waits, this dog continues to express its happiness by wagging its tail. Imagine that. Left all alone outside on a sidewalk, while its owner is inside having fun. And this fellow not only keeps watching and waiting, it even continues to wag its tail when it catches sight of its owner through the window. I’m not sure about you, but I find that truly impressive. Not least because I myself am often unable to do the same. Difficult enough to remain patiently watchful in an uncomfortable situation. But to be joyful as well? I find that a tough act to follow.
And yet this is precisely the kind of grace we are praying for on this 3rd Sunday of Advent. As we said earlier, today is also called Gaudete Sunday. From the first word of the entrance antiphon, meaning Rejoice! Even as you watch and wait for the Lord’s coming, Rejoice! Even if you happen to find yourself in a difficult and uncomfortable situation right now, Rejoice!
That is the central message of our celebration today. And if, like me, you find this call more than a little difficult to answer, then we need to pay closer attention to what our readings tell us. For, as you’ve probably noticed, most of the people in our readings are also in really difficult situations. In the first reading, the people of Israel are living in exile, far away from home, in Babylon. The Christians, to whom the second reading is addressed, are undergoing persecution for their faith. And, in the gospel, not only is John the Baptist in prison for speaking against King Herod. But he will soon have his head chopped off.
Finding themselves stuck in bad situations. Not unlike those dogs left all alone on the sidewalk. It must be truly tempting for all these people either to give in to depression and despair, or to get distracted by everything that’s going on around them, and to give up their faith in God. But even as they continue to suffer, all of these people receive calls to persevere. Those in the first reading are told to strengthen all weary hands. To steady all trembling knees. And to say to all faint hearts, “Courage! Do not be afraid.” The people in the second reading are encouraged to be patient. And not to lose heart. And, in the gospel, Jesus promises John the Baptist that the one who doesn’t lose faith in the Lord is happy.
All of which is easier said than done. And yet, all these people are not left alone to do the impossible. A gift is being offered to them to help them. A secret for obtaining the grace to stand firm. The grace to rejoice even in the midst of their suffering. The grace to do what those impressive dogs we mentioned earlier seem to be able to do as if by instinct. When it feels as though we’ve been left behind by our Master. When we find ourselves in a difficult situation. How do we keep waiting patiently without giving up hope? How do we find joy in the midst of our distress? Well, much depends on where we choose to look.
If we simply put our heads on our paws, and stare only inward at our own difficult situations, we will naturally get depressed. And if, on the other hand, our focus is only outward. On the many things going on around us. The things that often keep us so very busy. Then we’ll just get distracted. But if we are able to imitate those impressive dogs, and keep eagerly looking forward. If we carefully keep watch for the signs of the Master’s coming. Then perhaps we will receive the incredible ability, the unbelievable courage, not just to remain calm. But even to wag our tails in joyful expectation.
In the first reading, for example, although the people may feel as though they are living in a barren and desolate place, the prophet calls them to look forward to a time when the wilderness and the dry-lands will exult. And the wasteland rejoice and bloom. A day when the Lord will return them to their homes. When joy and gladness will go with them and sorrow and lament will be ended. In the second reading, although the people may feel that God has left them all alone on the sidewalk of persecution. They are reminded to continue looking for the Lord, who is already to be seen waiting at the gates. And, in the gospel, Jesus has a similar message for John. To the one who is suffering so much in prison, Jesus sends news of the many blessings already being showered on those outside: the blind see again… the lame walk… lepers are cleansed… the deaf hear… the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor…
Sisters and brothers, when we look closely at our lives. When we gaze deeply into our hearts. When we survey carefully the world around us. It is likely that we will find much to depress and distract us. But this doesn’t mean that we should just close our eyes and stop looking. We should, rather, insist on looking even more closely. Looking even more deeply. Looking even more carefully. To the Lord. To the One who has already come. And who will come again. The same Lord, by whose life, death and resurrection every tear is wiped away. And everything is made new. Especially in this third week of Advent, we need to keep looking for signs of his coming. In our hearts. In our lives. And in our world.
I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn written by Sr. Miriam Therese Winter: I saw Christ in wind and thunder. Joy is tried by storm. Christ asleep within my boat, whipped by wind, yet still afloat. Joy is tried by storm. I saw raindrops on a river. Joy is like the rain. Bit by bit the river grows, 'til all at once it overflows. Joy is like the rain.
Sisters and brothers, today is Gaudete Sunday. Today, whatever the trials we may be facing, we are all called to rejoice. For the Lord is close. What must we do to keep looking out for him, and to keep joyfully wagging our tails in welcome today?