My commentaries on the Readings for Year C are available in a beautiful hardback volume here, and the commentaries on immovable Feasts and Solemnities are here. Videos of Dr. Scott Hahn and I dialoguing on the Advent Readings are free, here.
This Sunday is “Gaudete” Sunday, from the Latin gaudete, “Rejoice!” which traditionally begins the introit for this Mass, taken from Phil. 4:4. Many parishes will mark this Sunday with rose-colored vestments (not “pink”—“pink” is not a liturgical color!), and the theme of joy runs through the readings and the liturgy.
Gaudete Sunday marks the liturgical half-way point of Advent, and the Church rejoices because Jesus’ coming is near.
1. Our First Reading is Zephaniah 3:14-18a:
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Sing joyfully, O Israel!
Be glad and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has removed the judgment against you
he has turned away your enemies;
the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst,
you have no further misfortune to fear.
On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!
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.
Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of one of the last kings of Judah (Josiah, 641-609 BC), and had mostly condemnatory things to say about Judah and the surrounding nations. The conclusion of his prophecy, however, from which this First Reading is taken, speaks in glowing terms of a restoration God will enact far in the future.
In this reading, the faithful people of God are personified as “daughter Zion,” and the LORD is described as a bridegroom. The language of “rejoice over you,” “renew you in his love,” “sing joyfully because of you,” describes the behavior of a bridegroom. Many Advent/Christmas texts have nuptial themes, because the incarnation of Christ is the “wedding” of two natures, human and divine. God weds his nature to ours in Christ. Furthermore, Jesus is the promised “bridegroom king” from the line of David, fulfilling many texts which describe the king from the line of David as the ideal spouse.
In this Sunday’s Mass, this text encourages us to be glad for the coming of Jesus our bridegroom king. The Reading also looks forward to various forms of communion that we experience with Jesus our bridegroom. The Eucharist, where we receive his body into ours and become “one flesh” with him, is a very intimate act of union with Christ. There is also unitive prayer, the highest form of prayer, where we are joined with him in Spirit and pass through the stage of discourse through words into a deeper union that surpasses words.
2. The Responsorial Psalm is Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6:
R. (6) Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel.
God indeed is my savior;
I am confident and unafraid.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
With joy you will draw water
at the fountain of salvation.
R. Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel.
Give thanks to the LORD, acclaim his name;
among the nations make known his deeds,
proclaim how exalted is his name.
R. Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel.
Sing praise to the LORD for his glorious achievement;
let this be known throughout all the earth.
Shout with exultation, O city of Zion,
for great in your midst
is the Holy One of Israel!
The first twelve chapters of Isaiah are like a synopsis of the entire book, and at the end of it comes this chapter, a doxology in which the prophet praises God for the plan of salvation that has been revealed in the previous eleven chapters, especially the immediately preceding one (Isaiah 11), which speaks directly of the Messiah, the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” who will be “anointed with the Spirit” (Isa 11:1-2)
The joyful theme of this doxology fits the mood of this Mass, and ties with the first reading through the motif of God being “in the midst” of his people.
3. The Second Reading is the traditional introit for this Mass, Philippians 4:4-7:
Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
As Advent draws to a close, this reading reminds us “the Lord is near.” Of course he is always near to us, but in Advent we undergo a liturgical-spiritual exercise of living through the expectation of his arrival, as if we were Israelites living under the Old Covenant all over again.
St. Paul’s advice in this reading is some of his most intensely practical teaching. He gives some keys to a lifestyle of rejoicing: (1) not being anxious, through abandonment to God’s providence, (2) showing kindness to everyone, (3) making constant practice of prayer as an antidote to worry, including intercession, supplication, and especially thanksgiving in our prayer. How often we forget to include thanksgiving, and how important it is for the maintenance of joy on both a psychological and spiritual level!
This passage is actually my “life verse,” if you will. I’ve probably given more sermons and talks on this passage than on any other in Scripture. I have it memorized and often recite it at night when I wake up, say, at 3AM and can’t get back to sleep due to anxiety. I recommend to others who are given to fretting, as I am. This is an especially useful passage for the present stage of the Church’s life we are undergoing, with a new scandal or doctrinal confusion almost daily reported in the news. It can be helpful to just stop following the news, because so much happens in the world and the Church about which there is little we can do but pray, and the news can be a distracting impediment to prayer. Now is a time for lay Catholics to do the only thing we can, which is strive to live a holy life in the midst of our circumstances, and ask God to bring peace and clarity within the governance of the Church and the world.
4. The Gospel is Luke 3:10-18:
The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Exhorting them in many other ways,
he preached good news to the people.
This Sunday marks the last time in Advent when our attention is going to be focused on the figure of John the Baptist, the one who announced the coming of Jesus. In this reading, we see a shift from his teaching to his prophecy of the one who was to come after him, Jesus. Yet this Gospel is a bit bracing: talking about “burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” doesn’t seem to fit the theme of rejoicing that characterizes this liturgy? So how does this Gospel relate to the theme of rejoicing, and how can we really rejoice this Sunday, despite all the challenges that face us personally and in the wider culture? The call to rejoice may seem a little hollow. We are facing so many challenges on a personal and public level. There are financial stresses, health problems, deadlines at work, dysfunctional relationships with family members. On a culture-wide perspective, there are widespread terrorist attacks, political setbacks, various forms of persecution from the annoying to the lethal, scandalous controversy with mutual public recriminations among prelates within the Church, new allegations of abuse with the Church, a general hostility to religion and particularly Catholicism, and a worldwide contracting economy. So, in the midst of this, how do we rejoice?
Its healthy to remind ourselves that the Good News is not that Jesus came to give us an upper-class lifestyle with a two-stall garage, three kids, and a house in the suburbs for the duration of our lifetime. One cannot find any such articulation of the Gospel in the New Testament. Instead, one finds expressions like, “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Or “Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:12). Or “In this world you will have trouble; but take heart, I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33).
We need to keep reminding ourselves that the Good News is not a plan for temporal comfort in this life, because it is our tendency to revert to thinking that it is. And when we look around and see that things are not comfortable, even after 2000 years, we mistakenly think the Good News has not worked.
The Good News is about eternal life with God through Jesus Christ, which starts now, but won’t be directly seen until the life in the world to come! The Good News really is about heaven, and what lies beyond the grave!
Temporal comfort is not the answer to our deepest needs. Even if Jesus were to give everyone who believes in him total economic and political stability for the duration of our temporal life, it would not satisfy the longing of the human heart, which is made for so much more.
People sometimes warn of “being too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” That is not biblical. On the contrary, one has to be “heavenly minded” to be any “earthly good,” because only the “heavenly minded” have the joy and courage to endure the sacrifices necessary to make substantial contributions to the “earthly good.”
The exhortation to rejoice in the first two readings and psalm are not based on some external reality, but on an interior and eternal reality: that Christ has come, and taken up residence in our hearts, giving us communion with God even now, and in the life to come. This is truly Good News!
The Gospel Reading can be seen as an application of that Good News. Share your food and your clothes with the poor, the Baptist tells the people. Be content with your proper wages, he tells the tax collectors and soldiers. Such are the actions of people who are not living for this life. If this life was all there was, the logical thing to do would be to hoard your food and clothes, and strive to make money any way possible. What permits this joyful lifestyle of sharing and contentment is the confidence that we are headed for an eternal reward that makes temporal wealth seem insignificant in comparison. As St. Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
This Gaudete Sunday gives us the opportunity to remind ourselves what the Gospel really is all about, why we should be people of joy, and how to live the generous lifestyle of people who aren’t living for the here and now.