Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2012
Reflection for the Third Week of Advent
Advent is a season of joy, and the third Sunday of Advent highlights this. Its traditional Latin name, “Gaudete” Sunday, means “Rejoice!” Last Sunday, the readings were full of the joyful news of deliverance and salvation. In the Gospel, Luke presented John the Baptist as the voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (3:4-6). Prepare for the Lord’s coming and for the wideness of his mercy! (I can think of no better way to stay with these words prayerfully in Advent than to listen to the first part of Handel’s Messiah).
This Sunday, the prophet Zephaniah announces the day of the Lord’s coming and tells the people to shout and sing for joy, for “the Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals” (3:17-18).
Today, it is the risen Lord Jesus who speaks these words to us and he reminds us of something we often forget: that the joy of Gaudete Sunday is first and foremost the joy that God has in us, a joy God sings out, hoping that it will bring us new life and hope. Is this the God you really believe in? The God who rejoices over you with gladness and renews you in her love? The God who sings joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals? The God who knows and loves the real you, not an image you have to project. The God whose love is a gift, with no reason or agenda other than to make you more fully alive to love -- not a reward that must be earned or withdrawn when we fail. The God whose love invites you to see yourself and others in a fundamentally new way – the way he sees us: the persons we are and will become if we open ourselves to the power of Christ and his Spirit.
St. John of the Cross expresses this well in his poem, “The Song of the Soul and the Bridegroom.” It’s based on the Song of Songs, a beautiful poem in the Old Testament about human love, that has been interpreted as an allegory of God’s love. In that text, a woman awakens after a night of love and rapture only to find that her beloved is gone. Looking at herself, she fears he didn’t like what he saw in the morning light. Searching everywhere, she pleads for him to return:
Scorn not my humble ways,
and if my hue is tawny do not loathe me.
On me you well may gaze
Since, after that, the rays
Of every grace and loveliness will clothe me.
This is the divine love we believe has come – and keeps coming -- into the world, into our lives. St. Paul repeats the message: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near” (4:4-5). Has this most central mystery of our faith really found its way into the depth of our hearts yet? It’s not easy to believe in such a God, because we have so few experiences of love like this. And, at some level, we may be afraid of such a love, for it is divine and we are all too human. (Handel again: “But who may abide the day of his coming?”) It will pull and stretch us, take us where we may not want to go. (Weren’t people always complaining about the company Jesus kept?) The life of faith is hard because it is a life of love.
In the gospel, John the Baptist warns us what kind of love Christ is and brings, when he comes: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). God comes to set us on fire again where we have become complacent or cold; to free and self-forgetful, where we have become narcissistic and forgetful of others. Perhaps the fire of his coming is also like a lightning bolt meant to wake us up, get us moving out into the world, out of our comfort zones, to respond to its need and suffering. For God’s love is not blind to suffering and if we let her love into our lives, we can no longer be blind to it either.
If, like the people in the gospel, we are willing to ask “What should we do?” the Baptist’s answer is as practical – and challenging – today as it was then: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (3:11). Such generosity is all the more difficult in hard times but for that reason, all the more urgent. The good news of the Lord’s coming is the Spirit and fire he brings, that will enable us to reach out this way – not only in our personal lives, but in our public lives as citizens. Even more: it may be in the very act of reaching out to the other in need, that we will experience his coming.
So, as St. Paul says, “Rejoice! The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5). Ask him, “What should I do?” and don’t be surprised when he answers.