Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.
Indeed, the Lord is near.
—Philippians 4:4-5 (Entrance antiphon for the Third Sunday of Advent)
On this Third Sunday of Advent, the Church gives us a very specific mandate: rejoice! And, during these pre-Christmas days, it seems that there is joy all around us. Actually, there has been for a while. Businesses, public spaces, and homes are filled with the sights and sounds of Christmas and the dark hues and somber tones of Advent seem to be largely confined to our churches and chapels.
And yet, in the midst of all of this holiday cheer, the words of the essayist William Stringfellow should give us pause: “For the greeting card sentiment and sermonic rhetoric, I do not think that much rejoicing happens around Christmastime, least of all about the coming of the Lord. There is, I notice, a lot of holiday frolicking, but that is not the same as rejoicing. In any case, maybe the outbursts of either frolicking and rejoicing are premature, if John the Baptist has credibility.” After all, Stringfellow continues, “[John] identifies repentance as the sentiment of Advent” (from Advent as a Penitential Season).
This past weekend, I had the privilege of representing my religious community, the Society of the Divine Savior, (the Salvatorians) at the National Conference of Catholic Youth Ministers. This biannual gathering brought youth and young adult ministers from around the United States (and beyond) to San Jose, California, for three days of formation and prayer. It was a great event and it was easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm and energy of church leaders and ministers who are genuinely excited about their ministries and the people they serve.
I think the joy that I experienced at that gathering is really what the Church is calling us to on this Third Sunday of Advent. It is the joy that Father Richard Rohr, OFM., speaks of when he reflects on spiritual “happiness”—that sign of a deeper, abiding sense of true Christian joy—in his book Silent Compassion: “Happiness is always a gift from first seeking union or love. If love is your actual and constant goal, you can never really fail, and happiness comes much easier and more naturally.” Those priests, religious sisters and brothers, and thousands of lay ecclesial ministers weren’t just excited to be together, although there was an element of that. They were able to rejoice in what God was doing in and through their ministry because their starting point was love—love for God, for the Church, and for the youth and young adults they serve. Everything else, including the music, social events, and myriads of other fun activities was window dressing.
When we think of the themes of judgment, repentance, and salvation that emerge in the Gospel for this coming Sunday, we might at first glance think that they are at odds with the spirit of Christian joy to which we are also called. As we heard from William Stringfellow, John the Baptist, the prophet par excellence, proclaims the coming of the Christ, calling his hearers to lead lives worthy of the new age of the Messiah: give up extortion and avarice and begin sharing with those who are in need. Reject racism, classism, prejudice—our culture’s “us versus them” mentality—and recognize those things that we share, which unite us as children of God. In short, John is calling us to manifest our interior faith through works of charity, peace, and justice.
So, then, how can we reconcile these seemingly disparate ideas of repentance and joy?
To answer this question, we can take a cue from Thomas Merton who observed that the “‘King who is to come’ is more than a charming smiling infant in the straw… In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to his presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies” (Seasons of Celebration).
What we prepare to commemorate at Christmas has actually already happened: God is with us. John the Baptist’s clarion call for repentance is an exhortation for us to acknowledge the presence of Christ among us and to live accordingly (cf. Jn 1:19-28). And so, our Advent hope and joy are not only focused on the approach of Christmas Day. Rather, we rejoice because God has kept his promises and has given us love and truth in Jesus: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus… The one who calls you is faithful” (1 Thes 5:16-18, 24a).
Br. Silas Henderson, SDS.
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
ever faithful to your promises
and ever close to your Church:
the earth rejoices in hope of the Savior’s coming
and looks forward with longing
to his return at the end of time.
Prepare our hearts and remove the sadness
that hinders us from feeling the joy
which his presence will bestow,
for he is Lord for ever and ever. Amen.
—Alternate opening prayer for the Third Sunday of Advent from the English translation of The Liturgy of the Hours, © 1974, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.