The Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday. Midway through the dark seasons of Advent and Lent, the priest takes out his joyful “rose”-colored vestments and we get a little taste of Christmas joy.
The ancient entrance antiphon, from the day’s Epistle, says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.”
It is the nearness of the Lord that is the source of our joy. In the first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, the image is of God in the midst of the holy city. “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
Why? “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior.” The city that had been abandoned now receives God in its midst – a fitting theme for Advent. Rejoice!
And the city rejoices because the Lord himself rejoices: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you.” It is the Lord’s own joy that overflows from his hearts into ours.
In Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas concludes his discussion of the one God with a whole question on God’s happiness: the happy God. And he begins his moral theology with five whole questions on our true happiness, which we find in God alone.
Here in the midst of Advent, we remember that our happiness is when the happy God is among us, his joy overflowing into our hearts.
The reading from Philippians connects this overflowing happiness to other aspects of the Christian life. First, to kindness: “I say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all.” Kindness seems a weak thing. But here we see it as a sign of our spiritual life. Kindness overflows from our joy. Or to put it the opposite way: why are we unkind? Because we lack joy. And why do we lack joy? Because we are too far from the happy God. Here is an examination of conscience.
Or we can take other angles. The Greek is epieikeis. St. Thomas has a question in the Summa on this Greek word (IIa-IIae q. 120). He says it’s a kind of flexibility about rules. Rules matter – but sometimes they don’t apply. Why are we inflexible? At heart, because we lack joy.
Or the Latin translation is modestia. Thomas has two questions on this “modesty,” which he sees more like “moderation” (IIa-IIae qq. 168-69). He says it has to do with moderation both in our play and in our dress. In both, we can have too much or too little: we can laugh too uproariously or not enough; we can dress up too fancy or not enough. We can be too gloomy or too gaudy. Why do we do any of those things? A lack of joy. “Rejoice! Your moderation should be known to all.”
So too, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” Why are we anxious? Because we have not let the joy of God’s presence flow into our hearts. But if we receive his joy, “then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Our Gospel has two parts: one talks about vocation, one about Christ.
First, “the crowds asked John the Baptist, ‘What should we do?’” What should we do now that we have repented?
“Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none.” Let the day’s spirit of joy again be our key. Pope Francis talks about a Church that is “poor and for the poor” and about “the joy of the Gospel.” The two go together. When we do not know the joy of Christ, we hoard material possessions, and push others away. When we know joy, we can afford to be generous.
To the tax collectors he says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed,” to the soldiers, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” He calls us not to leave our ordinary lives behind, but to live them with gentleness and justice – as ones who have found their joy and their peace in the presence of the happy God.
In the second part of our Gospel, John says, “I am baptizing you with water . . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Jesus gives us more than nice words. He pours his very Spirit into us.
And summing up what we have read: “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat.” When you thresh wheat, first you beat it, to separate what is rich and worthy from what is merely chaff. Then you wave a fan over it, and the chaff, which is nothingness, is blown away.
Let his joy, his joy, be the fan, which blows away all that does not matter, and leaves us kind, flexible, moderate, and just, full of love, because we have found the pearl of great price.
Where do you manifest a lack of joy?