Traditionally, the Third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday.” “Gaudete” is the Active Imperative Second Person Plural of the Latin verb meaning “to rejoice.” It isn’t quite correct to translate the name of this Sunday as “Rejoicing Sunday”; it would be more accurate to translate “gaudete” as “All of you should rejoice now!” The rejoicing indicated by Gaudete Sunday is a command rather than a suggestion or an observation.
The origin of this command for the whole Church to rejoice is easy enough to understand.
As I mentioned two weeks ago, Advent was instituted originally as a season of penitence. Older Catholics will remember the “Ember Days” of Advent; those were days of fasting before Christmas. In the old days, Gaudete Sunday was a welcome relief from the days of fast. This Sunday of obligatory rejoicing was inserted into Advent as a rest from the normal course of fasting and penitence.
As Advent has lost its penitential character, one might ask whether a Sunday dedicated to obligatory rejoicing is necessary. If such a thing is necessary, then it might also be necessary to ask how one should rejoice. At this time in world history, when so many people are suffering or living in fear, one might wonder whether rejoicing is appropriate.
In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptizer refuses to be identified with any of the primary figures of messianism during the Late Second Temple period. At the time, there was a commonly held belief that God would send a Messiah and that the Messiah’s coming would be announced beforehand by Elijah or an eschatological prophet. The Baptizer steered clear of all those expectations, saying only that he was not the one who would redeem Israel. (Jn. 1:20-21)
Clearly, John the Baptizer played a significant role in preparing for the arrival of the Messiah but instead of focusing on himself, he chose to focus only on the one who was coming after him. (Jn. 1:27) The Baptizer chose to be satisfied with his role in salvation history; he found joy in being John the Baptizer rather than being the Messiah. As such, the Baptizer is an example to be imitated.
There is an old joke about the creation stories in the Scriptures; it says that, in the beginning, God created human persons in God’s own image and, ever since then, we’ve been trying to return the favor. In contrast, the Scriptures teach us to come to know the Divine and they warn us to avoid identifying ourselves with the Divine; John the Baptizer embodied this Scriptural wisdom. Consequently, we see in his life the rationale for cultivating a sense of habitual joy.
The sort of rejoicing commanded by Gaudete Sunday is anticipatory joy rather than subsequent joy. The season of Advent invites us to look forward to the consummation of history and the completion of God’s plan to redeem the world. Advent invites us to rejoice now about what will happen in the indeterminate future. Rather than waiting to know whether our joy was warranted, Advent says that we should be joyful now as a way of existing in a world that does not consistently reward our expectations.
Why should we rejoice in this season of darkness? Why shouldn’t we hoard commodities rather than be generous? Why shouldn’t we disregard the well-being of others rather than be merciful? Why not scapegoat people and circumstances for our misfortunes? Why not embrace delusions in order to distance ourselves from harm?
We live in an era when disordered desire, rampant fear, and denial of reality have made virtue seem pointless. The source of all these individual and social ills is our refusal to be merely human, our refusal to rejoice in the life given to us by God.
Who could possibly rejoice during a time of uncertainty and fear? The answer is: only those who trust in God rather than themselves. We have cause to rejoice this Sunday and every day. We have cause to rejoice because we know, with John the Baptizer, that none of us is required to be the world’s Savior; we know the Savior’s role in God’s plan has already been fulfilled. It is our vocation only to rejoice in what God has given.