Put to Right

By Matthew S.C. Olver

Joy is elusive. Every year, the third Sunday of Advent is Gaudate Sunday, a little lightening in these days that grow darker and darker. This lightening is often marked with rose vestments (like Laetare Sunday in Lent). The name of the Sunday comes from the Latin of the Introit verse appointed in the older missals: “Rejoice [Gaudate], rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!”

It is a strange word, isn’t it? Rejoice. Come back to joy. Rejoice. The Scriptures do not teach us that God is joy, do they? St. John tells us that God not only loves, but that he is love. But God is not “joy” in anything like the way that God is “love.” Joy is a state of being. Joy is something that exists as an unusual overflow, outside of the usual.

If one were always joyful, then it wouldn’t really mean much of anything to describe someone or something as “joyful.” Joy is the only fitting response to a particular event or encounter. “What were more holy,” we read in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, “Than to rejoice the former queen is well?”[1] God is love; God loves; God is the source of love. God is joy, however, only in the sense that God is the source of joy in us.

Notice how the passage from Isaiah concludes: “They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (35:10). In other words, when this Jesus returns at his second Advent, when he appears, we will see him as he is[2] and be filled “with unutterable and exalted joy,”[3] and that joy will know no end.

The Church’s seasons (like her liturgy), we must remember, are not arbitrary inventions of creative people. The liturgical year is the articulation of the Christian gospel, simply in a different form. So we should not be surprised if the particular seasons mirror specific aspects of the gospel. One significant aspect of the gospel is the motif of the kingdom of God when Jesus preaches in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke: it has come, it is coming, and it will come.

Advent preaches the very same thing: “It looks backward in time to the coming of the Son of God as the infant of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago; it looks forward to the end of time, to the consummation of history in the coming of the Son of God as Judge. But there is yet another dimension of the most vital importance for our spiritual life: Advent is about God’s coming now. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Prologue of his commentary on Isaiah, speaks of these three dimensions of Advent:

  • the coming of the Son of God in carne: in the flesh, historically;
  • his coming in mente: in our souls, now by grace;
  • and ad judicium: at the judgment, at the end and as the end of history.[4]

These three aspects move together seamlessly in our lessons today. The first two lessons — the prophesy from Isaiah and the lesson from the end of the Epistle of St. James — look forward to some event in the future, something that will be. Isaiah’s prophesy is fulfilled — at least in part — in the Gospel. The parallels are quite clear.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them,” Jesus says, knowing full well that this is what Isaiah said would happen. And John would have recognized this completely.

But what is also clear is that Isaiah’s prophesy is not fulfilled with any completeness in the earthly ministry of Jesus. What James is anticipating is also a future event that is concerned primarily with judgment. Isaiah’s prophesy also looks beyond Jesus when everything is completely and finally and ultimately put to right, and evil and death and Satan and suffering and grief are not only done away with, but remembered no more.

John the Baptist is always the focus of Gaudete Sunday: for he is the second Elijah, the new Isaiah, the final prophet to prepare the way of the Lord. And the method of preparation is no different now than it was then. John’s sermons were very basic: “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”[5] In fact, Jesus preaches the exact same thing. Matthew even summarizes the preaching of Jesus in identical words: “Repent, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”[6]

Repentance is what the disciples preached when Jesus sent them out.[7] Repentance is the currency of the kingdom: “Bear fruit that befits repentance,” John the Forerunner cries out. The cry of the Kyrie, “Lord, have mercy upon us,” is not a peculiarly “penitential” cry for certain seasons (Advent and Lent) but which we can jettison in other times (Christmastide, Epiphany, and Eastertide).

The posture of the Kyrie is the key that opens the soul to God. Think of the four basic petitions in the Our Father that are request for us specifically: give us this day our daily bread (that is, please continue to sustain this gift of life); and the rest are concerned with sin: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sins against us; lead us not into temptation (help us not to sin in the future), and (literally) “deliver us from the evil one” (protect us from the Devil; and the currency in his economy is sin).

The Eastern Orthodox Churches embody this much better than Western Christians in their liturgy, as the Kyrie is repeated countless times at every Divine Service. We have no other cry, when we come to God, than Kyrie eleison. “So you also,” Jesus says, “when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”[8]

All the Scriptures that speak of his second coming make it clear that it is not all peaches and cream. And yet, St. James feels the need to urge patience in their expectation because it is something for which Christians are meant to long: “Even so, come Lord Jesus” is the final note of the biblical symphony.

We do know that there is but one God revealed in the Scriptures, so that what is attributed to God in the Scriptures has a real and substantial coherence. It means that there is no contradiction between the claim “God is love” and what the prophet Isaiah tells us today: “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come to save you” (35:4). Anthony Bloom describes the desire to meet God in the soul like this:

To meet God face to face in prayer is a critical moment in our lives, and thanks be to Him that He goes not always present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him, because we might not be able to ensure such a meeting.[9]

Every time we come near God, it is either life or death we are confronted with. It is life if we come to him in the right spirit, and are renewed by him. It is death if we come to him without the spirit of worship and a contrite heart; it is death if we bring pride or arrogance. … It is essential to realize that we will lose our life in the process: the old Adam must die.[10]

But if we come prepared with our heart and our lips in one accord — “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner” — then we will encounter the Lord and we shall be changed.

Pope Francis titled his letter to the Church, Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, and he begins like this: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” [11] And he names with remarkable precision what prevents this encounter:

The great danger in today’s world … is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.[12]

But the medicine and the armor are in the posture of humble penitence. This is how we will meet the Lord. This is how we will be changed. This is how we can serve the poor in such a way that Jesus recognizes that it is done for him. Repentance is the only path to joy.

As Austin Farrer puts it, “Advent brings Christmas, judgement runs out into mercy. For the God who saves us and the God who judges us is one God … What judges us is what redeems us, the love of God.”[13]

The Rev. Matthew S.C. Olver is associate professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

[1] Winter’s Tale, V.1.30

[2] 1 John 3:2

[3] 1 Peter 1:8

[4] Much of this paragraph comes verbatim from “Advent Meditations,” Originally presented by Dr. Robert Crouse for the Prayer Book Society of Canada, Nova Scotia/Prince Edward Island Branch Advent 2002 Institute, held at St. George’s Round Church, November 30, 2002, accessed at http://www.lectionarycentral.com/advent3/Crouse1to4.html.

[5] Matthew 3:2

[6] Matthew 4:17

[7] Mark 6:12

[8] Luke 17:10

[9] Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (Paulist Press: New York, 1970), 27.

[10] Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer, 11.

[11] Pope Francis, Evangelii guadium, §1.

[12] Pope Francis, Evangelii guadium, §2.

[13] Austin Farrer, The Crown of the Year, Advent II, quoted in Robert Crouse, “Advent Meditations.”


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