Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I say again, rejoice!” Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus. Dominus prope est.
“Let your gentleness be noted by all people. The Lord is near!” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
These are the words that give today its name—Gaudete
Sunday, "Rejoice Sunday." Since at least 750 AD (and probably for centuries before that date) Benedictine monks have begun Mass on the third Sunday of Advent by chanting this marvelous command from the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Be joyful in the Lord! On Gaudete Sunday Christians around the world light the rose Advent candle and preparations for the great Feast of our Lord’s Incarnation take on a more festive tone. Fittingly, all of our readings from Holy Scripture this morning touch on the theme of rejoicing.
John the Baptist, for instance, tells his followers that the sound of the bridegroom’s voice—the revelation of God’s Messiah—fills his heart with joy. The Baptist has been looking forward to this for years—in the recent past he has been “crying out in the wilderness” about it. John’s charismatic preaching and outlandish mannerisms made him a sort of first-century “rock star.” Crowds flocked from all over Palestine to hear him denounce their sinfulness and proclaim “the One who is to come.” John’s success as a preacher is astonishing when you think about the content of his message. But even more amazingly, the Baptist had been proven right! Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him who takes away the sin of the world! It actually happened! The Christ really came! No doubt John’s heart was filled to bursting with joy. But there is no gloating on John’s part—no “I told you so.” Instead John the Baptist’s response to the vindication of his entire ministry is: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” A greater One than John has come and a new age has dawned. The Baptist bows down in humble submission, willingly laying down his celebrity at the feet of his Master. Joy over the Lord’s immanent victory and humble submission to God’s will as we await His triumph—these are two touchstones of Advent that John the Baptist models for us superbly this morning.
The monks in the early Middle Ages who first gave us “Rejoicing” Sunday understood something important encoded in John's message: Advent is about paradox. In a week and a half we will celebrate the piercing of the veil between Heaven and earth, when the sovereign Lord of the cosmos became one of His own creatures, united with us in joy and suffering by His own human flesh. We shall hear the familiar story again, a story that never grows old with retelling. God’s mighty arms, accustomed to swirling galaxies, will be bound in swaddling clothes. God the Son, serenaded from the dawn of creation by choirs of angels, will doze to his mother’s lullaby. The Source of Life will render Himself vulnerable to death on our behalf, the wood of the manger foreshadowing the wood of His cross, the cave of His birth echoing the tomb of His burial. We can’t help but tremble with joy as we contemplate such awesome, boundless grace! And that rose candle reminds us that the great feast of the Incarnation will be here very soon. “Rejoice!, indeed, my friends.”
But that is not our only cause for joy this morning. God’s Holy Word written promises that a day will come when our Lord will once again make His home among mortals. Every knee in Heaven, and on earth, and under the earth will bow to Him and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The glory of God will light up the world and the nations will walk by its light. And the God-who-is-with-us will wipe every tear from our eyes. “Death will be no more; mourning and crying will be no more.” The entire Universe will gaze in adoration upon Christ’s radiant scars and know that nothing will ever triumph over the boundless Love of God. Perfect joy. Perfect peace. Soon, my dear brothers and sisters, it will come very soon. Today’s rose candle reminds us of that, as well.
Unfortunately, the fallen world which you and I inhabit scoffs at such thoughts. The same voices that shouted down the prophets of ancient Israel and taunted our Lord Jesus on the cross still call out today—“realistic” voices, cynical voices, voices of despair and emptiness. “You don’t really believe all that baloney in the Bible, do you?” they ask. “If your Christ really is coming back why is He taking so long?” If only these sad people could comprehend just a fraction of the eternal glory that lay in that manger at Bethlehem, if they could see the love of God pouring out of Christ’s wounds on Calvary instead of just innocent Blood, if they could only glimpse the scale of the victory over sin and death won by the rolling stone of Easter morning, their doubts would be quieted and their hearts would be opened. You and I have to tell them. We must tell them that God is faithful and just, and His promises are true. But more than that: you and I must show them today the Love of God first manifest two millennia ago in the Babe of Bethlehem.
Advent is not simply about preparing ourselves for the glories of the Christ Mass. It is also about preparing ourselves to be living, breathing icons of the divine love that shows forth from the Nativity. Christ, the perfect icon of God’s love, must increase within us, if we are to "bring the Lord near" an age that desperately needs to see Him. That is the second meaning behind the Baptist’s pronouncement this morning: "He must increase, but I must decrease." Not only is John telling us that his celebrity status must diminish as Chirst’s ascends, he is also saying that the me inside of me—the “old man” as St. Paul calls it, our fallen human nature—must fade away as the image of Christ forms itself deep within my heart. For to borrow a phrase from St. Paul: “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives within me.” He must increase and I must decrease until I become His image—His icon—in a world that needs to see Him more than words can express.
That is, of course, a very tall order. I know only too well how poorly I reflect the image of divine Love. How is this transformation to come about? In our lesson from First Thessalonians today St. Paul links constant prayer, unfeigned thankfulness, and a discerning spirit—a spirit able to choose the good and abstain from every form of evil--with a sanctification of our bodies, souls, and spirits--a "making holy" that will render them “sound and blameless” at the coming of the Lord, fully restored images of the perfect humanity of the Word made flesh. This fundamental renewal of our natures can only be the work of the Faithful One who calls us, the God of Peace who sanctifies. For as John the Baptist reminds us this morning, “No one can receive anything except what is given him from Heaven.” Such is God’s gracious will in Christ Jesus for us. No wonder Paul exhorts us to “give thanks in all circumstances” and to “rejoice always.” What other response could we possibly have to such unmerited generosity on the part of our Creator and Redeemerthan limitless joy and boundless gratitude?
So the rose candle burns this Gaudete Sunday, stoking our desire for that night when we will gather here to celebrate the coming of Christ’s light into the world so long ago at Bethlehem and reflecting our longing for that glorious day when all darkness will finally be put to flight. But the candle’s small, steady flame also reminds us that Advent is not simply about the distant past and the indeterminate future. We worship the Holy One “who was, and is, and is to come.” Between the wonders of the Incarnation and the Second Coming our God has not stopped coming to His people. We have not
been left as orphans, my brothers and sisters. God the Holy Spirit, the sacred fire at the heart of Christ’s Church, abides with us, giving us life and growth, indwelling us at our baptism, sanctifying us in our walk through this world, and empowering us for service to the Kingdom, increasing the image of Christ within us at every stage until we radiate
His joy and love even to the ends of the earth.
And so, my brothers and sisters, rejoice
. I say again, Rejoice! “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord JesusChrist. He who calls you is faithful, and he will do it
.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen