Gaudete is an order which in Latin means “Rejoice.” Traditionally, on the third Sunday of Advent, we light the pink candle on the wreath. We do so after over two weeks of soul-searching and responsible cooperation with God’s grace to free ourselves of nagging flaws. We also fill ourselves with love and willingness to serve the Lord and our neighbor while awaiting the glorious revelation of the total Christ, i.e. Jesus Christ and his Body, the Church as one. We also stop to take stock of the reason why we should look forward with eagerness to the completion of the Kingdom of perfect love.
Yet, we are not the first ones to stop and picture the glorious future that awaits us. In his Letter to the Philippians (4:4-7), St. Paul is in prison, with chains on his wrists & ankles; he senses that his life is about to end. That means that he is near the full revelation of Christ in his glory. Hence, he tells us: Gaudete! It is an order given repeatedly to the people of Philippi and, even more forcefully, to us today: Rejoice! The prophet Zephaniah (3:14-18) goes even further. He invites Jerusalem, i.e. all of us, as a Church to be outright silly. He wants us to shout for joy, and dance, and exult…in full view of people who might wonder about our sanity.
We know what would make us act silly at the material level. Like hitting a huge jackpot! Like having the girl with whom we are in love agree to marry us. Like having the second test of malignant cancer come back negative and we are declared cancer-free… You can think of many other reasons that would prompt us to burst into unrestrained rejoicing…. Yet, our joy would wear out quickly; new problems would surface and we would find new reasons to feel downcast, sad, concerned. Today, we are here to find out how believers can dismiss all anxieties about a shameful, sinful past, or a frightening future and be filled with uncontrollable spiritual joy.
St. Paul cannot shake from his mind his embarrassing past of hatred and persecution of Christians. He knows that his days on this earth are numbered, yet he rejoices. Yet he orders all other believers to join in this uncontrollable celebration. Zepheniah gives us the reason: The Lord has removed the judgment against Jerusalem and we can add Paul as well as every single one of us. He has also turned away our enemies: i.e. the ghosts of our shameful past; the ghosts of a lukewarm history of compromises and excuses in our relationship of tepid love for Jesus; the ghosts of fear about the uncertainty of the future and anything else of which we are not proud.
Today we take ownership of our past, without excuses, without covering up, without minimizing for God what we, in our frailty have done…It is our past, like the past of Paul, the past of Jerusalem, the past of the crowds who went to hear John, the past of tax collectors, soldiers; the past of repentant criminals: it cannot be changed. It is ours. We own it. And we give it to God in humility.
Let us not forget: there is no condemnation: The Lord has removed the judgment against us. So, rejoice, exult and shout for joy. Now, will the Lord have second thoughts? No way. We gather every Sunday to double check on that. We gather to remind each other that our rejoicing should go on and on…There, on that Cross, is the proof that the judgment has been lifted—beforehand.
Touched deeply by God’s words of forgiveness and reconciliation, spoken through John, we rejoice, we are full of expectation of what God might offer us next; so we ask: “What are we to do?” If you have 2 coats….or too much food, too much of any good thing… be honest and fair in all your transactions; avoid greed…It boils down to a choice between hearts attached to material possessions, or free to love and to share. We are not asked to do anything sensational or extraordinary, let alone heroic. No, we are simply expected to answer our original, usual calling, to stay the course, while doing everything in our ordinary, daily life with dedication, accountability, integrity, fidelity, love.
If we accept this simple suggestion, then we can discover the second reason for our rejoicing. God is in our midst. God rejoices over us with gladness. The Lord will sing joyfully as a groom embracing his wayward bride. Or as a Father who has his prodigal son back safe and sound.
But, how is the Lord present among us? As a Savior offering us a promising future through his word of forgiveness and healing. As a Savior baptizing us with his Holy Spirit and in fire. In the Holy Spirit: in order to inspire us to lead a life of self-giving and joyful service. In fire: to purify us of all our chaff of greed, selfishness, lukewarmness, and indifference.
In conclusion: IF the Lord has removed his judgment; IF he rejoices in our loving response; IF he is all around us and in our hearts, we can dismiss all anxiety and we can be like the Philippians of old and display our rejoicing openly, before all we meet, in order to reassure them, as well, of what the Lord has done to us and wishes to do everyone else, too. Eventually our rejoicing will turn to peace. God’s own peace will be His ultimate gift to this earth. Those who refuse to join in our celebration of forgiveness, of a judgment being lifted forever, of a most powerful, all-encompassing presence of our God, will be unable to understand why. They will wonder about our sanity; they will consider us odd, strange…But we will be anxiety-free, guilt-free, children of the Father. But we will be confident in God’s grace to be able to learn to love, to share, to serve joyfully. But we will be given God’s peace to stand guard over our hearts and minds, in Christ Jesus our Lord.