Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141) describes the Church as a bridal hall. Each and every soul is a bride, awaiting the final moment of her wedding to God.
The soul adorns herself through the healing oil of the sacraments and the fragrance of the virtues. Life in the Church is not about complacency, feeling that one has arrived at one’s salvation. Instead, ecclesial life is to be marked by a deeper longing for God’s final coming, for total union with the triune God.
On this third Sunday of Advent, we are formed anew for this divine desire. The prophet Isaiah promises that God’s Spirit will descend upon creation, bringing about the final moment of espousal that Israel has longed for.
God “has clothed me ... like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels” (Is 61:10). The covenant that God once sealed with Israel will now be made permanent. Israel and God will dwell together in perfect peace, concord and love.
It is this Bridegroom that John the Baptist announces in the Gospel of John. John the Baptist is not the Christ, the Messiah who has come to bring about the end of Roman rule. He will not establish God’s kingdom.
John the Baptism is not Elijah, the apocalyptic prophet, who would reveal all things.
John the Baptist is the one who points to the one who is coming, the hidden Bridegroom: “‘I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize ... whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie’” (Jn 1:26-27).
Like the Pharisees listening to John, we too must wonder. Who is this hidden one who is coming? Who is the one who will reveal the truth of all things? Readers of John’s Gospel, of course, know: “And the Word was made flesh, and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).
John the Baptist points toward the glory of the Word made flesh, the source of light and life who will reveal all things. How can we not long for the coming of this Bridegroom, for the manifestation of God’s very glory?
The wedding promised in Isaiah has taken place. Humanity has been espoused to God in the person of the Word made flesh.
On the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, the Church begins to sing the bridal song of rejoicing. We cannot yet see the Bridegroom fully, but we can cry out with the introit for this week, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice.”
We practice this rejoicing, this longing for the final consummation of the union of God and man, through letting our whole lives become a prayer of desire for God: “Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:16-18).
Prayer is not an obligation. Participation in the sacramental life, including the Eucharist, is not merely an obligatory activity. Instead, it is a foretaste of the wedding feast that we long for. It is the way that we adorn ourselves for the wedding feast that God will bring about at the end of time.
Life in the Church is lived in between the wondrous deeds that God has accomplished in Christ and the final arrival of the Bridegroom.
On the third Sunday of Advent, we must become like brides who long for this final wedding, this total union with Christ that is our destiny.
Until then, rejoice always.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.