Joy, hope, spirit, and suspense are all themes of this Sunday’s readings. While any one pastor or reader may gather various meanings from a single set of scripture, I offer today my personal take on the readings for this Gaudete (Rejoice!) Sunday, the third of Advent.
It is rare to find a week with such extraordinary and powerful readings. Straight from the opening prayers, we begin with the prophesies of Isaiah 61:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.
While we won’t listen to Jesus’ recapitulation of this reading today, hardly a Christian hearer of this passage does not recall Jesus’ words in the temple (quoted in fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel).
The first reading then skips the middle of Isaiah 61, jumping back in at the last two verses:
I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.
Breathless from the metaphors and images of God transforming the world, we welcome the responsive psalm…or, in this case, a sneaky Gospel reading disguised as a psalm (one of those exciting moments where someone other than a Priest or Deacon proclaims a Gospel message)! And could any Gospel reading be more appropriate than the exultant words of Mary that begin Luke’s Gospel? Allow me to set the scene for you:
Mary, likely around 13, ostracized from her community and family for getting pregnant out of wedlock (“who got her pregnant?” they must have asked so often), travels to visit the also pregnant Elizabeth, likely in her late 40s or 50s, also ostracized from her community (Luke 1:23 states that “she remained in seclusion for 5 months”!). These two lonely pregnant women meet, one carrying a prophet and one the Son of God, and lo! Rejoicing happens! How can it not? Out of the mouth of the 8th-grade-aged girl, Luke recounts words that foretell the glory of God and the commencement of Isaiah’s “anno Domini” –the year of the Lord.
And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Now, the response we will hear at Mass cuts out some of these verses–as is their purview–but I prefer the message in full, for the final line especially brings to mind the beauty of Isaiah and the fruition of the entirety of scripture.
We then move on to the second reading, which, poetically speaking, pales in comparison to the two previous–but this is Paul we’re listening to! He may not be a poet, but his final words to the Thessalonians get right to the point. “Rejoice always! Pray without ceasing! Always give thanks!…Do NOT quench the spirit!” (if Greek had a CAPSLOCK for emphasis, I believe Paul would be using it there)
Thus, after we are rocked by poetic prophecies, Paul brings us down to Earth:
Brothers and sisters: Rejoice always! Pray without ceasing! In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus! Do NOT quench the Spirit! Do not despise prophetic utterances! Test everything; retain what is good! Refrain from every kind of evil!
May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.
I added some exclamation points where Paul’s reader would have given the points some more emphasis–remember, these letters were proclaimed to the community by an appointed reader, who undoubtedly emphasized what he (or, less likely, she) felt needed to be emphasized.
And finally, of course, the suspense draws near. The priest or deacon takes his place, and the Gospel is read. Following the theme from last Sunday’s readings, we are given some more insight (from John’s Gospel) into this prophet named “John.” Let’s cut in halfway through for the best part:
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘make straight the way of the Lord,’” as Isaiah the prophet said.”
Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him,
“Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”
John answered them,
“I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
This is great stuff and John’s responses hold the key. But before we do, let’s recap the previous readings to fully understand whats going on.
First, Isaiah tells us that all will be made right with the world. Not just right, but just–the evils will be avenged, the sadness will cease forever, justice and peace will flourish and blossom from the center of civilization despite the odds against it. Like the mighty redwood trees of the west or oak trees of the south, justice for all and praise for God will tower throughout the world.
As you sit in suspense, we are given a glimpse how this will happen–a young girl’s poetry, masked in a call-and-response, tells of the promises of God being fulfilled. Not only is this a direct linking of Jesus to the fulfilling of Isaiah 61, but it is an affirmation of the lowliest ones and outcasts in society being given precedence and glory. The joyful news that God’s promise is being fulfilled is first shared person-to-person not by a few high priests in the temple, but between two lonely pregnant women, rejoicing in their God and in their company far away from the scorns of the community.
Then, relieved, hopeful, and rejoicing with Elizabeth and Mary, we are encouraged by the Apostle to the Gentiles to rejoice! At all times! Pray! Give thanks! Hang in there and cling to hope and joy, Paul states, for God’s time is nigh. Trust in the peace of God and hold fast to what you know is true.
Finally, relieved, hopeful, and waiting, we’re brought back to our Gospel narrative, anxious to hear about Jesus and the fruition of the prophecies. Instead, John remains the center of our attention, exchanging quips with doubt-filled listeners of his message: “This amazing guy is coming and you don’t even know it,” he tells the Pharisees. Notice how he doesn’t even answer why he’s baptizing, as if to say, “You think you have questions for me? Just wait till you see what this next guy will do.”
The key to John’s message–what the Pharisees didn’t understand and what we must–is his reference back to Isaiah 40. Beginning with verse 3, we read:
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
Believe me, I could go on. The Pharisees undoubtedly knew this entire chapter of Isaiah, and likely reacted variously to John’s message– “What a lunatic!” or “Who does he think he is?” or, perhaps, from a few: “Could it be true?”
As Christians, we know it is, we know it. But this Sunday, like the hopeful Pharisee, perhaps we can allow ourselves to stand with the prophets and saints of old, wondering with joy and hope and faithfulness…could it really be true?
Beyond all the rejoicing and praying that Paul wishes upon us, an unspoken command must also be heeded, one that we often forget in light of all the rejoicing and holiday shopping and giving good cheer and all of that…but one that was never lost on the early churches: “wait. wait. For the coming of God is near.”
Whether Christ comes back tomorrow or not, whether we meet God upon our death before Christ meets us here on earth, the coming of God is near. So rejoice in the hope of the Love that is to come, and take in the readings this Sunday for every ounce of passion they share with us…the best is yet to come.