“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”. These words of St Paul form the opening proclamation of the Eucharistic liturgy of the third Sunday of Advent, a repeated imperative that looks towards a joy “that the world cannot give” (cf Jn 14:27). The John reference is in fact speaking of peace, but love, joy and peace go together as the first three fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Do you know the experience of joy in your heart? I’m not talking of happiness, something that most people seek and that depends on the circumstances of the world in which they live. Circumstances fluctuate and are often unstable. There is an English hymn that says, “‘Tis not from chance our comfort springs, Thou are our trust, o King of Kings”. Joy is not the fruit of chance or circumstance. It comes from the Spirit of God and abides under trial and tribulation.
The first two readings take up and enhance the opening proclamation of the liturgy. The text of Zephaniah begins with a fourfold repetition of the command to rejoice; and it concludes with the same, but now modulated into an assertion: it is the Lord himself who rejoices over us. The central part of the reading gives the grounds for our joy. In the second reading St Paul makes a fundamental connection between joy and peace. It is the Lord’s nearness, in both the affective sense, and in the rapid passage of liturgical time, that enables us to rejoice and to know a peace “which passes all understanding”.
The gospel, on the other hand, is challenging. How might we open ourselves to the joy of the Lord? John the Baptist offers concrete advice to people in general (“the multitudes”): they should share what they have with others; to people in the business world and in administration (“tax collectors”): no profiteering; to people with public authority and power (“soldiers”): act with justice and equity. While John baptizes with water, the one who is coming will do so “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. The last part of the text concludes in fire: the painful purification that we all need, a purification that is the work of the Spirit who is at the same time fire and balm: “the living fire, sweet unction and true love”. Such purification will lead beyond John’s morality of equity to the “exaggeration” of “love your enemies”.
In this Sunday called “Gaudete” (rejoice!), we look to the completion of the Advent wait. Maybe some of you who have particular sufferings at this time will find the proclamation of joy unconvincing, because it is fire that prevails in your life and there is little of the “sweet unction”. Only a deep intimacy with the Lord whom we await can enable us to dwell within a circle of fire and find there the peace “which passes all understanding”.
Fr Edmund Power osb