In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is often called “Rose Sunday” because of the Rose colored vestments traditionally used on this day. It is also known as “Gaudete Sunday” for the first words of the Latin introit at the beginning of the mass: Gaudete in domino semper: from the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: rejoice!” (Phil. 4.4).
Advent is meant to be a time corresponding to Lent, a time of preparation and penance, a time for subduing the flesh, and preparing ourselves to meet the Lord, whom we know to be coming soon. Its easy to lose sight of this true meaning of Advent, because of the secular observance of Christmas, which now begins shortly after Halloween, and which emphasizes celebration, lights, candy canes, and reindeer. But the Church exhorts us to sobriety and vigilance, to be on our guard, because we know neither the day nor the hour when the Son of Man will appear to judge the world.
In today’s Gospel reading, St. John the Baptist sets before us words of wisdom which encapsulate our calling as those who are waiting for the appearance of the Messiah, the second coming of the Lord. John was the last of the great prophets of Israel (cf. Mat. 11.13 & Lk. 16.16), the final herald of the Old Covenant before the Messiah of God broke forth into the world to save and redeem what God had made: all that had been corrupted by sin and decay and death. John sits on the cusp of the Kingdom, and in the sovereign providence of God, would not himself see the revelation of the Messiah, because he was killed by Herod before Jesus began his public ministry. So John is a liminal figure, one whose life abutted the age of the fulfillment of God’s promise.
We may, therefore, fittingly appropriate the words of the Baptist for ourselves; for we too live lives just touching the breaking-forth of God’s redemption – the redemption already wrought by the life and death of Jesus – yet the redemption which is perpetually being fulfilled by the Church in our own age. We therefore live in the “last times” for there is no further step in the narrative of salvation awaiting fulfillment. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. We await the consummation of what has already been wrought, and indeed this consummation is even now being wrought – even through us, as we assent to the conformity of our own lives to that of our Savior, as we allow him to work in and through us.
And what is his work but the loving self-gift of the only and eternal Son of God to us, and to God for us. In our time, and through our own work in union with Jesus, “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and… all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made…” Therefore this seasonal and lifelong sobriety and vigilance, our awaiting the Lord’s second Advent, is a borderland activity, within time, yet touching eternity; beholding the Kingdom of God from the vantage point of the temporal and finite.
John’s words and his ministry lay out the pneumatic outline of our messianic expectation: We, like John, are the friends of the Bridegroom, who stand and hear him, rejoicing greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; and therefore this joy of ours is now full. He must increase, but we must decrease; for the world has grown old, and the axe has been laid to the root.
Our sobriety and vigilance, even our repentance – in short, our decreasing that the Lord may increase within and through us – this constitutes our joy, for it means that we are being prepared to come into the presence of the King – as Pope Benedict said in his encyclical, Spe Salvi:
The encounter with [Jesus] is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves… Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally [belonging to] God.
Here we may return to the vocation of John the Baptist, and what it meant for him and for us to “prepare in the wilderness a highway for our God,” as Isaiah had foretold. Again we find that it means cracking open our hearts to the presence of the Lord, allowing him to come inside of us and, saying to God, as John Donne put it: “That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” And this is the meaning of Gaudete Sunday, from today’s epistle: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice; let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God” (Phil. 4.4-6).
In 1 Thessalonians Paul gives us more concrete instructions on how to undertake our joyful diminishment in the face of the Lord’s appearing: “Be at PEACE… REJOICE ALWAYS, PRAY CONSTANTLY, give thanks in ALL circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
How do we do this? How do we decrease that the Lord may increase? And how are we to REJOICE in doing so? I would like to suggest three concrete things you can do. 1) Read the Scriptures; marinade in the Word of the Lord. God has revealed himself in Scripture, and because this is so, we should be eager to seek the Lord in the richness and depth of God’s word. So establish a daily pattern of Scripture reading. A convenient way to do this is by reading the selections outlined in the lectionary in the back of the Book of Common Prayer.
2) Have frequent recourse to the sacraments. Come to mass. The Lord has promised really to be present to us in the Holy Eucharist. So come, and seek him there. Pay attention to the words of our prayers, and engage the mass within the context of the story of salvation told in the Bible – in the context of its rich symbolism and the multivalence of its meanings. Go to confession. It is the Lord’s express will that we confess our sins to one another… that we may be healed (James 5.16). Time and again I have seen people come to confession for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, and come out visibly renewed, almost floating, having rid themselves sometimes of years of accumulated shame and guilt, and having been restored to grace and favor with God. There is no better way to prepare for Christmas than by going to confession. The times I have set aside to be available for confession are in the service leaflet, and there are guides to preparing for confession in the tract rack in the narthex, or in the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book (which many of you have), and I would be happy to help too.
3) (and last): Pray. Exhort yourself to a renewal of your prayer life. Take on a new prayer discipline. Come to a weekday mass each week. Prayerfully read a selection from the Psalms. Pray the Rosary, or pray an extra Rosary. Read a passage of the Gospel and spend five minutes of silent meditation on it, with your eyes closed. Spent time each morning or each evening speaking to the Lord in the silence of your heart. Prayer is how we cultivate the divine life within us, its how we nourish the gift of the Lord’s own self; its how we grow in loving communion with the Savior; its how we willfully decrease, that he may increase. Really to pray is to rejoice greatly at the bridegroom’s voice, and to come to the fullness of this joy of ours, to stand and hear Jesus not only as our redeemer and judge, but as our friend.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.