The Third Sunday of Advent is historically called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for joy. It is a day for rejoicing. Why? Because Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 4:4-7) to rejoice always — that the habit of rejoicing is fundamental to those for whom the Lord is near. The pink candle on our Advent wreath reminds us that we are called to be a people of joy, especially as our celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus draws near.
I know that, today especially, many of us don’t feel like rejoicing. We feel anxious, upset, heartbroken for many reasons, not least of which is the vision of the slaughter of innocents at a Connecticut elementary school on Friday. But that’s not all. It is not just Friday but every day that we hear the word of the world and it is disquieting. The word of the world is a word of violence, of economic and personal instability, of sorrow and rage, of fear and regret. The days have grown dark and we feel the chill of it all. Because the word of the world, both locally and abroad, is so often cold and cruel and uncertain.
Perhaps what draws us together in spite of this word is our yearning for a counter-Word, a Word that makes sense of our broken-hearts, our burdens, our worries, and our fear, a counter-Word that transforms our hope into destiny. But when our hearts are filled with sadness, when our minds are numbed by tragedy, when we are still anguished by the senseless slaughter, how do we respond to Paul’s insistence that we rejoice? Dare we light the pink candle?
I can offer no word today to make sense of the slaughter. I can offer you no pill to make the pain go away. I can offer you no promise that will erase the cause of our disquiet. God does not cause evil. We do. Evil is always senseless. Evil is always painful. Evil is rightfully disquieting. Indeed, all I can offer today is Paul’s admonishment that disciples rejoice. And not just now in our worship. Always.
Paul’s claim that we are to rejoice always may be a tough Word for us to hear today. But I think it in fact the Word we need to hear and embrace, especially today. For, even though we gather together to hear a counter-Word, our baptism means that we are called to be heralds of that counter-Word. And the Word we herald is this: the Christ on a Cross has risen in the dark shadows of human anguish. The Day of the Lord is here. God’s conquest of evil has begun.
Yet we live between times — between the dawn of the world’s redemption and its fulfillment. We rejoice now not because we are deaf to the cold, harsh word of the world, but because we are filled with the grace of God’s counter-Word. We rejoice because we’ve been blessed with eyes to see beyond the dark shadows of a world that’s forgotten its Creator. We rejoice not because of what is, but because of what is becoming. Our joy is not conditioned upon the vagaries of this world. It bubbles up in us as our act of faith in God’s promise. In God we trust.
A Facebook friend nourished me this morning by sharing a line in Madeliene L’Engle’s poem, “First Coming”: “We cannot wait till the world is sane/To raise our songs with joyful voice. For to share our grief, to touch our pain/He came with love: Rejoice! Rejoice!”
Joy is not a choice we make on the basis of the ebbs and flows of daily life. Joy is not a judgment we render on our lives only when they are filled with roses, love songs, and sweet perfume. And joy is not a naive denial of the harsh realities of our world. Rather, joy is the quite rational song of a people waiting, sometimes in the best of times, sometimes in the worst, for the coming of our Lord. It’s a song of our own desiring, and anticipation. That’s what Advent is all about, this waiting for our Lord. Waiting in the knowledge that the Christ who is the world’s judge is also the Christ who is our Savior. This Christ, who took all the violence of the world upon himself and emerged victorious, who conquered both death and evil so that the world might have life; this Christ, who showed us the Way to the New Jerusalem; this Christ is also the Christ who draws near, here and now, walking alongside us on our journey to Emmaus, consoling us when our hearts are rent, helping us to see the light of the new dawn. This Christ is the cause of our hope. He is the Word that counters the world’s insanity, who heals us, delivers us, loves us, gives our lives meaning, and to whom we lift up our hearts. He is God-with-us, the One for whom and with whom we wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises.
My prayer is that, in the coming days, each of us will make our way through our streets now illuminated by brightly colored Christmas lights and notice that, in spite of the world’s darkness, at least in our little corner of America, most of us instinctively invest ourselves in our Advent task of waiting. That’s one small way we herald God’s counter-Word.
Be one of those lights tonight. In the midst of our anguish, be a herald of the good news. Announce through acts of charity and kindness that we wait for the peace that is the fruit of justice. We wait for the good that vanquishes the evil we see in daily life. We wait for the joy that washes away our anxieties. The lights of Advent announce our hope that the Light who conquers our darkness is on the way.
It is right to be joyful as we wait. For we wait as a people who have already tasted the first-fruits of the harvest of peace and joy. Our confidence in the One for whom we wait is justified.
And it is this tasting of the first-fruits that brings about the paradox of our waiting. Advent is about preparing to celebrate, but, especially when our lives are punctuated by violence, we are reminded that the preparation to which disciples are called is simply to set the eyes of our hearts on the One for whom we wait. And, when we do that in a serious way, we discover that the pink candle of Advent illuminates our turn toward the joy that is both present and promised.
And so we do indeed dare to light the pink candle, for we have cause to rejoice not just for ourselves but for the whole world.
Therefore, comfort, O comfort, my sisters and brothers. Prepare your hearts for Christmas. For “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” Prepare yourselves to celebrate that the Savior and Comforter for whom we wait is already with us.