The 3rd Sunday of Advent is nicknamed “Gaudete … Rejoice!”, from the first word of the first chant, the Introit. Today we relax slightly our penitential focus during Advent.
Some say Advent is not a penitential time, even though it has always been considered such in centuries past. Many prayers in the Roman Rite during this preparatory season before the Nativity of our Lord are penitential. We fast before our feasts. It is therefore a perennial tradition to exclude flowers from the altar instrumental music during Advent. Our vestments are violet or purple, as in Lent, though some like to use a bluish rather than reddish purple to differentiate Advent as less somber, somewhat less focused on the penitential aspect.
In the first week of Advent we begged God for the grace of a proper approach and a strong will for our journey. In the second week, we asked God for help and protection in facing the obstacles we encounter in the world. Today we glimpse the joy that will soon be ours at Christmas. Liturgically this has been symbolized, though the use – just today – of the organ, flowers on the altar, and rose-colored (rosacea) vestments. Gaudete is the counterpart of “Laetare … Rejoice!” Sunday during Lent.
Our Collect, in the Ordinary Form, not in the pre-Conciliar Missale Romanum, is lifted in large part from the Rotulus of Ravenna, which has prayers as pristine as the 5th century (probably earlier).
Deus, qui conspicis populum tuum nativitatis dominicae festivitatem fideliter exspectare, praesta, quaesumus, ut valeamus ad tantae salutis gaudia pervenire, et ea votis sollemnibus alacri laetitia celebrare.
Sollemnis means, “yearly, annual”, taking on the connotation, “religious, festive, solemn”. The infinitives, expectare (“to look out for a thing, await, to hope for; to fear, dread”), pervenire (“to come to, arrive at; attain to any thing”), and celebrare (“to go to a place or person in great numbers or often, to frequent; to honor a person or thing”) give this oration a grand sound. They also sum up what we are doing all throughout Advent. Conspicio means, “to look at attentively, to get sight of”. The etymological dictionary of Latin by Ernout and Meillet says exspecto, is from ex– + *specio, spexi, spectum or ex– + spicio. Therefore, it is a kissing cousin of con-spicio. This is skilful word play. God “watches” over us and we “watch” for Him.
SUPER LITERAL VERSION:
O God, who attentively does watch Your people faithfully watch out for the feast of the Lord’s birth, grant, we entreat, that we may be able to attain to the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them in solemn annual rites with an eager jubilation.
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973):
Lord God, may we, your people, who look forward to the birthday of Christ experience the joy of salvation and celebrate that feast with love and thanksgiving.
CURRENT ICEL (2011):
O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.
Let us give a strong and joyful “Amen” when we hear this Collect pronounced or sung in our churches.
In the Collects of the last two Sundays we have been “rushing” and doing good works, striving and being careful not to get tangled in worldly things. This Sunday we have an image of unrestrained joy, an almost childlike dash towards a long-desired thing. Our heavenly Father watches over us as we run down the path toward our Saviour even as we make sure our paths are straight.
Have earthly fathers not watched this scene on Christmas mornings? Do children go to their gifts by zigzags or by running out of the house and away from them? They always go straight at them. Parents watch over their little ones so that, in their intensity, they don’t hurt themselves.
Our heavenly Father leaves us free, but His protecting and guiding hand and eye is upon us. We should feel an eager joy for the Lord’s Coming under the gaze and guidance of our generous and loving God. He’s is our Father and He has a plan for us.
The Gospel for this year in the Ordinary Form has St. John the Baptist, prophet and priest and precursor, offering, first, moral guidance. Then he turns to an eschatological explanation of what the Lord will do in the end.
He has his winnowing fan and he will separate the wheat and the chaff. The wheat (people in God’s friendship) will be taken to the good place. The chaff (people not in God’s friendship) will be burned in “unquenchable fire”.
This is part of, as the last line of the Gospel pericope reminds us, “good news” which we hear on “Rejoice! Sunday”. There is some tension there. Perhaps we can resolve it be reconnecting the moral content of John’s preaching with his description of the end times.
Let’s connect the moral and the eschatological by another passage in Scripture, using Scripture to interpret Scripture.
Let’s turn to another passage about the end-time’s separating of the good from the bad, Matthew 25. This is the passage in which the King will, like a shepherd, separate the sheep and the goats. He will explain to the good/sheep/wheat that when they ministered to the least of his brethren, they ministered to Him. The bad/goats/chaff that when they did not minister to the brethren, they did not minister to Him. He tells to them to go into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels. There’s that fire again.
Christ came at Bethlehem. Christ is coming at our death or the end of the world. Christ is already here. We resolve some of the tension by taking seriously the moral content of Advent’s eschatological message.
At the same time we remember what John the Baptist said. We have to make the path straight for the Lord. He is coming. When he comes, he will come by the straightest path, straightening them Himself if we have not straightened them first. That straightening will not be so easy for us if we are twisty.
The eschatological/end times content of the message of Advent truly is “good news”.
God hasn’t left us in doubt about how to treat our neighbor. That’s is “good news”. That helps us to be more responsible about our souls and those of our neighbor.
God hasn’t left us in doubt that he will come as Judge. He has not left us in doubt that rewards come to His friends and “unquenchable fire” of separation comes to those who are not His friends. Dire sounding? No. If we are Christians that is “good news”. It prompts us to be responsible about our souls and leaves us comforted with the knowledge that we can in fact attain the Kingdom Christ helps us to by His grace.
We cannot save ourselves. We depend on grace. We even depend on God to help us help ourselves. But our salvation is worked out through grace and elbow-grease. We are responsible for our souls. We can choose to accept or to reject the Lord, in Himself and in our neighbor. We can refuse to straighten out.
Make straight the path … NOW.
If you have something to straighten out with yourself and your God, with yourself and your neighbor… straighten it out NOW.