The Mass for the Third Sunday of Advent strikes a note of joy amidst this penitential time of preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas. The priest wears a rose-colored chasuble in place of the accustomed violet vestments. The entrance antiphon, taken from the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, proclaims: “Gaudete in Domino”—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.”
In the Collect of the Mass, the Church prays that God, who sees “how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity,” would “enable us to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.” This prayer to attain the joys of salvation points us to our heavenly homeland, where there is only “glad rejoicing” as the blessed worship God forever in spirit and in truth. All sorrow is gone; those who see God face to face have the gift of perfect peace.
Yet the faithful here on earth already rejoice, as St. Paul reminds us, for “the Lord is near.” Our rejoicing is an anticipation of heaven. Our faith in the Lord’s nearness teaches us that God does not call us to slog through this life in sorrow, but rather to tread our pilgrim way with a light step, rejoicing always in our closeness to him.
One of the pleasures of being a parish priest is celebrating weekday Masses, usually with a small congregation. The “regulars” at these Masses—all of whom are there without having to fulfill an obligation, as is the case on Sundays—are some of the happiest and most devout people you will ever meet. Their daily decision to take time to pray and be close to the Lord transforms their spirits. They truly celebrate, in their own quiet way, the solemn worship of the God they love so much, and draw from him in abundance the fruits of glad rejoicing.
The search for joy in life is a frustrating experience for those who do not seek that joy in the Lord. Entertainment is a commonly sought substitute for joy. Certainly there is a place for entertainment in our lives. But fleeting diversions and delights are, in the end, merely faint hints or foretastes of the otherworldly happiness found only in that other, invisible world we yearn for, whether we realize it or not. Everyone seeks happiness, yet true happiness is elusive. It requires faith to understand that everything here on earth is provisional and, in greater or smaller measure, unfulfilling, yet indicative of the joys that await us in paradise.
Our secular Christmas season is in full swing, even if it has been renamed “the holiday season.” Incessant television ads exhorting viewers to “buy yourself” this or that expensive item during the “holiday sale of a lifetime” because “you deserve it” confirm the narcissistic stupor of our age. A self-consumed materialistic focus in the weeks leading up to Christmas is the world’s poor substitute for the chaste, restrained joy of waiting for the Lord’s coming in a penitential Advent spirit. He is the giver of the true gift that will bring us unsurpassed joy—the gift of himself.
Are we worthy of such a great gift? “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (Matt. 8:8). This avowal of both our unworthiness and our healing by God’s word, who is the Word made flesh, teaches us that God makes us ready to receive him when he comes: at Christmas, at Mass, at his second coming, at the moment of our death. Becoming ready to meet the Lord is our task and duty, accomplished in cooperation with his grace. May Gaudete Sunday remind us that the Lord is not far away, and his grace already fills us with a share in the eternal joy we so eagerly seek.
The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is pastor of Holy Family Church in New York.
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Photo by Hans via Creative Commons. Image cropped.