Dec. 14, 2015

Catholics throughout the world celebrate the third Sunday in Advent as Gaudete Sunday.  It is especially joyful in the context of our Jubilee Year of Mercy.  The word gaudete comes from our second reading this week from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians--"Rejoice!  Rejoice in the Lord always.” (Phil 4:4).  We are exhorted to rejoice in the reality of Christ already present to us as we prepare to celebrate His birth.  We rejoice as we await His second coming even though it seems to be long delayed.  We rejoice, faithfully, in the triumph of Jesus Christ even though we are in the midst of an intense battle for our souls.

How does anyone get away with exhorting others to rejoice? If you are feeling down, does it really help for someone to come along and say, “Cheer up”?   And yet, without pausing to assess the mood and attitude of assembled worshipers, the Church makes bold to exhort people on the Third Sunday of Advent, ready or not, to rejoice. The tradition has its reasons, and the chosen texts are far more complex and challenging than any Pollyannaish efforts to jump-start joy.

This is not cheap joy.  When St. Paul exhorted the Philippians to rejoice, he was in Roman captivity.  He was giving a personal testimony to the power of faith in Jesus which sustains believers in the most difficult of times.  John the Baptist reminds us in St. Luke’s Gospel:

“His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 
Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached the good news to the people.

On the face of it, the reference to burning with unquenchable fire did not sound like good news.But that was Luke's word for it. Preaching good news was first of all Isaiah's way of talking about the coming of God in power, when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The Baptist made it clear that the coming of God in the person of Jesus would mean good news to those whose lives were “fruitful” in ways that show repentance … and bad news to those whose lives did not produce such fruit. When questioned by the crowds as to what precisely “fruitful” living entailed, he replied concretely: don't cheat, don't extort, don't falsely accuse, be content with your wages, and share food and clothing.

We humans are a heap of unsifted grain and the wind of the winnowing fan represents the temptations that assail us.  When your soul is overcome by some temptation, it is not the temptation that turns you into chaff. No, you were chaff already, that is to say fickle and faithless; the temptation simply discloses the stuff you are made of.

On the other hand, when you endure temptations bravely it is not the temptation that makes you faithful and patient; temptation merely brings to light the hidden virtues of patience and fortitude that have been present in you all along.

So, enjoy the breeze!  Allow the Lord to work in your lives so that He can continue to work in our divided and violent world.  And…Rejoice!  Rejoice in the Lord always!