Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gaudete in Domino Semper

Let's talk about the vestments first. (at Mass I wore rose vestments, pictures are forthcoming) We call the third Sunday of Advent Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means rejoice, and we're rejoicing that Christmas is so close. As a result of this joy, a bit of our Christmas joy enters into this Advent Sunday, and so a bit of white, the liturgical color of Christmas, enters into purple, the liturgical color of Advent, to get rose. Now, a woman has informed me that when white and purple are combined, they actually form lavender. But as a man, I'm still not sure what color lavender is. The way my mind works, and I imagine also for the men who decided our liturgical colors long ago, white and purple make pink, or rose, so on  Gaudete Sunday, when we rejoice that Christmas is so near, rose became the color of the day.

Conversion of St. Paul
 In our second reading, did you notice the three tough commands that Paul gave to us? At the beginning of the reading he said, "Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks." These are tough commands because he's not calling us to ignore the world, so we need to get to a Christian understanding of joy. Paul is not calling us to cover our ears, close our eyes and just sing "Everything is Awesome." Rather, we Christians are called to engage the world, engage this life in all of its messiness, and still give thanks in all circumstances. We need to talk about how we do that, because joy is crucial to the Christian life and vocation.

The second reading was the first letter from Paul to the Thessalonians, and this letter is interesting because it's the very first piece of the New Testament to be written. Paul's two letter to the Thessalonians were written in about 50 or 51 a.d., and that predates any other piece of our New Testament. So we can imagine at that point there was still a whole lot about Jesus' life and actions the early Christians were still trying to digest, but this much was sure: his followers had to be people of joy and hope.

When we consider our own lives and all the difficulties involved in them, we might be tempted to tell Paul, "I'll be thankful when there's something to be thankful for, but I can't do it all the time. It's a bit unrealistic to expect me to be joyful always because my life is different than yours, you don't understand the things I have to deal with." Yes, Paul's life was indeed different than yours. In another letter he writes, "Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches" (2 Cor 11:24-28). Despite everything he experienced, Paul's command is still to rejoice always! How does he say this?!

Paul knew that ultimately, the victory wasn't his to win. The battle and the victory ultimately belong to Jesus, and he's already won. Paul can be joyful because he knows that his sufferings do not mean he has failed in his work. He knows that his sufferings do not mean that Jesus doesn't love him. We rejoice in the fact that Jesus is the Savior of all, because that fact is not diminished by any suffering we experience in this life.

John the Baptist points to Christ
This is where we meet our gospel today. Like so many times throughout Advent, our gospel presents us with John the Baptist as the model of how to prepare ourselves for the Messiah. One line in particular continued to stick out to me in this gospel: "When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, 'Who are you?' He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, 'I am not the Christ.'" It's an interesting statement because in saying "I am not the Christ," John is in fact making a denial, he's denying that he is the Christ. But the gospel writer says "he admitted and did not deny, but admitted." So it looks like a denial, but the gospel says it's not. Now, using the word "admitted" here is one way to translate it, but it misses some of the force of the statement. Other translations use the word "confessed" in the sense of a declaration, like confessing God's glory. So the gospel author is at pains to tell us that this phrase "I am not the Christ" is in fact a proclamation, and it's a proclamation because it's good news for John and for everybody else. John is happy to proclaim that he is not the Christ, because that means there's someone else coming who can in fact save him from the sin from which he cannot save himself.

This recognition that "I am not the Christ" gets to the heart of Paul's command to be joyful. Paul can be joyful because he knows that ultimately, it doesn't depend on him. Whatever was going wrong in Paul's life, and there was a lot that we heard about, Paul was confident that Jesus was in control.

We too can be joyful that no matter what is going wrong in our life, Jesus is ultimately in control. We are commanded to be joyful. And yet, this joy isn't always easy to come by. Paul's command to rejoice always actually sounds kind of stupid if we hear it the wrong way. We need to differentiate between joy and happiness, because he certainly wasn't telling us to be happy all the time. Happiness or sorrow exist in response to the circumstances of our lives. I'm sure Paul wasn't smiling when he was shipwrecked or getting whipped, yet his joy was unshakeable. Joy exists at the level of our soul. Joy comes from knowing you are a beloved son or a beloved daughter of God our Father. Joy comes from rejoicing in that relationship. Rejoicing can exist right alongside sorrow, we see that even in our liturgy. At the beginning of Mass the first thing we do is recall our sins, and this remembrance of our sins, of our wretchedness, is then laced right into this deep and profound encounter with the God who loves us. Here at Mass we experience the deepest joy possible this side of heaven, and the sorrow of our sins exists right alongside it, it even amplifies our joy.

As we celebrate Guadete Sunday, check your heart to make sure that in the craziness of this season, you haven't lost the essential joy of Christmas. The Lord is near, as John the Baptist wants to tell us, so before he arrives, rekindle the joy of Christmas in your heart.

No comments:

Post a Comment