It is nearly impossible to ignore the pervasiveness of joy in the earliest chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Zechariah is told by the angel of the Lord that the birth of his son, John, will be a source of joy for many (Lk 1:14).
Mary’s greeting leads the recently conceived John to leap for joy within the womb (Lk 1:44). Shepherds glorify and praise God after encountering the Christ child (Lk 2:20). Songs of joy appear in every section of Luke’s Nativity account, inviting the reader to give “Glory to God in the highest” (Lk 2:14).
With the third chapter of Luke, the omnipresent joy becomes more subdued. John the Baptist assumes his prophetic role of forming the imagination of his followers in the politics of God’s reign. Give away extra clothing and food to those in need. If one is a tax collector, stop stealing. Soldiers should stop abusing their power.
Naturally, the crowds hear John’s exhortations as a manifestation of messianic power, the reign of justice and peace that will be established for all time. But, John points away from himself toward the one who still is to come. He will perform a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will bring about God’s definitive judgment upon the world, gathering together the wheat for the harvest. He is the Christ.
Of course, for us Christians, Jesus Christ is the one who has already come into the world, the Messiah whom the Baptist foretells. We rejoice because in the birth, death and resurrection of the beloved Son, the crucified and glorified king of Israel is in our midst. We can join our voices with the prophet Zephaniah, crying aloud with joy, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior, who will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love” (Zep 3:17). The entirety of the Christian life unfolds in the midst of this joy, because we know that God’s judgment of the world has already taken place upon the cross and resurrection.
During the season of Advent, we prepare ourselves to properly rejoice in this judgment of the nations that has taken place in the Son. And further, we practice awaiting God’s final judgment at the conclusion of the ages in which God “will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away” (Rev 21:4).
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians notes that the Christian is always to pray in the spirit of this joyful hope. The word “kindness” in Philippians 4:5 is not simply a matter of being a decent person. It is instead a gentleness of soul that the Christian possesses, a virtue that demonstrates to the world the nearness of the Lord. This gentleness of spirit is cultivated as we learn to pray each morning the psalms of the Church’s liturgy, speaking with loving devotion to the Lord of all the world. It is renewed when a parent, out of tender mercy, cares for the needs of a child. It comes forth when the Christian community gathers together, rejoicing in one another’s presence in the midst of joys and sorrows alike.
In this way, on this Third Sunday of Advent, we celebrate Rejoice (Gaudete) Sunday not simply because we near the feast of Christmas, but because the very nature of the Christian life is taking up a posture of rejoicing for the wondrous work that God has performed through Jesus. For great in our midst is the Holy One of Israel (Is 12:6).
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.