3rd Sunday of Advent (B)
Picture: cc Prayitno
My dear friends, have you ever prepared to go to a party? A big celebration, where there will be much merrymaking and rejoicing? How do you prepare for something like that? Of course, different people do it differently. Requiring different lengths of time. Some longer than others… But still, however different the preparations, you can’t do without certain basic steps, right? Such as dressing up. Putting on clean clothes. Even brand new clothes. And, before the new clothes are put on, the old ones must first be taken off. And the person also takes a bath, or a shower… First there is a cleansing, then a clothing, and finally a celebrating. These are the basic steps for joining a party.
Cleansing, clothing and celebrating. These are also the basic steps for entering into the particular joy that is God’s gift to us at Christmas. The same joy that the season of Advent is meant to prepare us to enter. Cleansing, clothing and celebrating. We find similar steps in our Mass readings and prayers on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, or Gaudete Sunday. Have you noticed where these steps are found? Do you know what each one looks like?
Let us begin by considering the final step. The celebration for which we are preparing. What are the special characteristics of this mysterious joy that is God’s gift to us at Christmas? How is it different from others? The first characteristic is found in the Collect, or opening prayer, that we prayed earlier. Do you recall what we said? We asked God to enable us… to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always… To celebrate and rejoice not just today or tomorrow or at Christmas, but always. This is the first distinctive characteristic of Christian joy. Unlike other enjoyments, this one can be celebrated always. Isn’t this what we find in the 2nd reading too? Be happy at all times… and for all things give thanks to God… Rejoicing at all times, and for all things. This is, of course, easier said than done. Easy enough to rejoice in good times, and for happy things. But when times are bad? When things go wrong? When people hurt and curse us, misunderstand and betray us? How can we possibly be expected to celebrate? To rejoice? To be truly happy?
The answer is found in a phrase that keeps getting repeated in different forms in our readings today. In the first reading, the prophet exclaims: I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God… Similarly, in the response to the psalm, we sang, my soul rejoices in my God… And, in the second reading, after telling the Thessalonians to be happy at all times, St Paul adds this line: because this is what God expects you to do in Christ Jesus. Why is it possible for the Christian to rejoice both in good times as well as in bad? Both for happy things as well as for sad? The reason is that Christian joy is found, not in the different times, or in the various things, themselves. But rather in the Lord. In our God. In Christ Jesus. For the times and things may change. Indeed, they often do. But the merciful love of the Lord endures forever.
Perhaps it’s not unlike how someone truly in love with his or her spouse, will happily follow him or her to a faraway place. To live among strange new people. To endure uncomfortable heat and humidity. As well as inconvenient surroundings. And to do all this happily, joyfully. Why? Simply because they are in love. They find their joy not in the place, or in the people. Not in the climate, or in the surroundings. But in the love they bear each other. Of course, there will still very likely be complaints and arguments. Fights and quarrels. But, if the love is true, the joy remains. The relationship survives and thrives. Even develops and grows.
The ability to rejoice always. At all times, and for all things. Simply because one rejoices neither in the shifting times nor in the changing things. But in the constant love of the Lord. This, my dear friends, is what the big party, the grand celebration, for which Advent prepares us, looks and feels like. And isn’t this something that we all desire for ourselves? The ability to remain joyful always? And yet, in order for us to receive this joy, to join this celebration, to be admitted to this party, we need first to dress up. To allow ourselves to be clothed in new garments. The same garments described in the first reading.
Here the prophet speaks of how God has called and chosen him, anointed and empowered him, for a special mission. To bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives… And the more the prophet dedicates himself to this mission, the more he wraps it around himself like an overcoat, the more it gives his life clearer focus and deeper meaning. Enabling him to find true and lasting joy in the Lord. My soul rejoices in my God, for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation, he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity. This is also the experience of John the Baptist. He too is tightly wrapped up in his mission. Firmly committed to his God-given identity as a witness to Christ’s coming. I am… a voice that cries in the wilderness: Make a straight way for the Lord…
In order to join the celebration, one must first allow oneself to be fully clothed in God’s mission. Seeking first, in all things, God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. But before this clothing can take place, there must also be a cleansing. A stripping away of older garments. This can happen in various ways. One of which is the way of repentance that John the Baptist preached. The same way that we ourselves are walking in these days by participating in penitential services. By celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. The letting go of sinful and selfish habits, in order to embrace a life of love and mercy, of justice and peace.
But there is also a second way. A way that John the Baptist himself walks in the gospel. This is how he appeared as a witness… Repeatedly, he is made to answer the same question: Who are you? Are you A or B or C? And if you’re not, then why are you doing what you’re doing? I’m not sure, my dear friends, but isn’t this intense questioning also a process of stripping? An opportunity to acknowledge and reject the various false identities that we often feel pressured to assume? Fake selves that society imposes on us? Telling us that we must be rich, or powerful, or successful, or popular, in order to be truly happy? And, in the process, keeping us from becoming the person that God wants each of us to be? From undertaking the mission entrusted to us? And don’t the trials of life often lead us to question our own purpose and direction? Trials that are difficult to endure. And yet, don’t these same trials present us with precious opportunities to strip off the false in order to embrace the true? To reject the fleeting in order to receive that which endures?
Cleansing, clothing and celebrating. These are the basic steps for entering into joy. My dear sisters and brothers, many of us go to great lengths to prepare ourselves for parties that last for several hours at most. Sometimes far less. What are we prepared to do to share in a joy that lasts for all eternity?