As we celebrate this third Sunday of Advent, we are getting into the home stretch of preparing to rejoice in the nativity of Our Lord, the coming of Christ the Messiah into our human history. This Sunday has traditionally been called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin words of the entrance hymn used, taken from chapter 4 of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, wherein he exhorts us to rejoice always, because the Lord is near and we have evidence of His love for us.
It is sometimes also called Rose Sunday, because of the ancient custom of the priest wearing rose-colored vestments for this one day, instead of the more somber and penitential violet of the rest of the Advent season. The Advent wreath – (actually a Lutheran, not Catholic tradition from the 16th century era of the Protestant revolt) borrowed from this tradition of the Catholic Mass, so you’ll see a rose -colored candle there as well.
St. Paul reminds us of the difference between joy on the one hand and happiness/contentment on the other. Joy comes from knowing we are loved by Christ and can never be taken away. Mere happiness comes from external circumstances in life, which are very fickle and fleeting.
The Gospel reading for Rose Sunday this year is St. John’s version of John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Lord. In fact, we get a “double dose” of this story. Last Sunday, we heard St. Mark’s version. At first glance, it might seem like a bit of a mismatch for Rejoice Sunday: the theme of both these Gospels is people repenting of their sins and being baptized. How can that “downer” of sinfulness match up with the theme or rejoicing?
We rejoice not because we are sinners, but precisely because Jesus Christ sets us free from our sins. That’s something that we can not possibly do ourselves. Only the grace and goodness of Jesus Christ can set us free, and we can only be truly happy if we are free – free to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength.
St. John the Baptist states this very explicitly: “I have baptized you with water. [The Lord Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” That is, what John did was an important preparation. By his preaching, he helped people to recognize their sin – their need for the perfection of love which only Jesus Christ can bring. That’s an important first step. We can get nowhere in the spiritual life if we think we don’t need God. But then he was stuck.
Where do we go from there? If we recognize that we are broken, self-centered, unable to love the way we know we should, then we can be tempted to despair and to all manner of destructive and escapist behavior to try to cover up this unpleasant truth. (Deacon Eddie Hoffman preached brilliantly on this topic last week.)
That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. He is the very power of God reaching out into our lives, healing those parts of our souls where we have previously refused to let Our Lord Jesus Christ heal us. He is the one who makes us sons and daughters of God in the first place at baptism, and re-forms us into His image when we deform that image through sin. This is exactly what happens in confession – which, although challenging for us, should be a source of joy. That’s why I encourage you so often to make use of that sacrament.
St. John the Baptist says something else interesting to introduce this concept:” One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” In biblical times, when people had to walk everywhere on dusty and dirty roads, it was the job of the slave or servant to take off the sandals of his master and then wash his feet. A demeaning job, to be sure. So John properly and humbly recognizes where he stands before Christ: not even worthy to be His servant!
But the astonishing thing about the love that Jesus Christ has for us, is that, even though we are not even worthy to be His servants, He loves us like sons and daughters. So much so that He stooped down – way down – stooping all the way down from Heaven, to become a man like us in all things but sin. Stooping down to share in our human weakness. And even – as we celebrate on Holy Thursday night – literally stooping down to wash the feet of His disciples: the Lord of the universe becoming our servant in order to save us.
For that, we should truly rejoice today and always.