Opening the Word: Rejoice in the Lord

This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday — from the Latin word, “gaudere,” for “rejoice” — for it is a day of joyful expectation, filled with the growing anticipation of Christmas and all that wondrous season means. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in 2008, noted that the entrance antiphon for Mass “takes up St. Paul’s expression in his Letter to the Philippians, which says: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I tell you: Rejoice.’” The next statement from Paul provides a reason for his exhortation: “The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5). “This is the reason for joy,” said Pope Benedict, “But what is meant by ‘The Lord is near’?”

It’s a good question because, as Benedict points out, the apostle Paul is clearly thinking about the return of Christ, and that great future event is undoubtedly foundational to the joy he writes about. The return of Jesus is an anchor in the arch of Advent, which is rooted, at the other historical end, in the first Advent and the Incarnation. But, of course, none of us knows when Christ will return in glory. It could be today; it could be countless years down the road of time. However, Pope Benedict said, there is another and closely related understanding of the nearness of the Lord, for the nearness of God “is not a question of space and time, but rather a question of love: Love is near! Christmas will come to remind us of this fundamental truth of our faith and, before the crèche, taste Christian joy, contemplating in the face of the newborn Jesus the God who drew near to us for love.”

This essential truth is, to those who contemplate the face of the Christ child, both joy and life. But to others it is offensive and even upsetting. Part of the scandal of the Incarnation, as I’ve noted before, is the “scandal of particularity.” Why Bethlehem? Why Mary? Is this really the way that God works?

John the Baptist certainly thought so. “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,” he told the Pharisees, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, “‘make straight the way of the Lord...’” John is one of two key witnesses — from the word martyria, which is the root for “martyr” — during Advent. He testifies to what he has seen, to what has been revealed to him by God. John the Baptist had not only seen and known the Savior, he had recognized him while still in the womb (Lk 1:41). Coming out of the dust of the desert, this mysterious and startling figure gave witness not only by word but also by deed: first, through preaching and baptism, and then through the ultimate witness: martyrdom (Mk 6:17-29).

The second saint is the Theotokos, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first disciple of her Son, and the perfect witness of joy. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;” she exclaims in the Magnificat, “my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Lk 1:46-47). What does she rejoice? “For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed” (Lk 1:48). Mary is also a source of scandal, even to some Christians. But Mary is the epitome of humble faith, the God-fearing maiden who becomes, by the power of the Holy Spirit and her fiat, the God-bearing mother.

Joy, then, is not merely an emotion; it is the faithful response of our heart, mind and soul to the grace of God, the recognition of his saving power, mercy and love. God has prepared the way; he has sent a messenger; he has sent his Son; he has sent salvation! Christ is near; Love is near. Rejoice!

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.