The Third Sunday of Advent has always fascinated me because of how different it was from most of the rest of the church year, or even the very season it is part of. Nestled near the end of the season of preparation, yes and of penance, that is Advent, we have this Sunday that doesn’t seem to belong. This sense of not belonging starts with the customary name of this day, for it is the only day in Advent that has its own special name. And that sense of not belonging increases as one enters into a church on this day and sees instead of the somber deep blue or violet of Advent the light pastel color rose in the vestments.
And don’t even get me started on the readings. Instead of the scary apocalyptic texts that are read the other three Sundays, the texts on Gaudete Sunday are instead focused on joy, something that can be seen from the very name of the day. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” Those words are the beginning of the introit that would have been heard in most Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican churches before the liturgical reforms of the mid 20th century. These differences are pronounced enough that they are almost jarring. And that’s why I love this day.
Another unofficial name for this day in the Episcopal Church is “Stir-up Sunday” after the collect for the day which asks God to stir up their power and come among us. But I love this image so much, because God is all about stirring up stuff and breaking us from the patterns of this world to live a new life oriented towards them. If only the church was better at imitating it’s Head and went into the comfortable places in life and started stirring them up! But I think for that to happen we need to stir up the complacent within our own communities and lead them into a word that is increasingly dirty and messy. And I think a good place to start is to reexamine the texts that are read today and see how God is using them to stir us up.
“Rejoice always in the Lord, again I say rejoice!” That itself is a challenge to us to stir things up. How are we supposed to be full of joy in a word that often seems full of gloom and despair? How are we to be full of joy in a world where people die from not having the food or medicine they need, not from scarcity but due to greed of people and nations preventing them from receiving them. How are we to rejoice in a world where our LGBTQ+ siblings face violence and rejection everywhere they go for simply trying to live as God created them to be. How are we to rejoice in a world where we pillage and destroy our beautiful fragile home for short term gain. Joy seems to be the least obvious reaction to the nightmare that the world too often can be. And as bad as it may seem to be to us now, can you imagine how it must had seemed to the people who first heard these texts?
Our passage from Isaiah is from what has historically been known as Deutro-Isaiah or Second Isaiah. These words were written to a community exiled from their home. They had seen the great Temple, the home of God, razed by an invading force. They had been removed from the land of their ancestors by the use of force and forbidden to return. They were forced to live among a different people, and were treated as lesser for trying to live by the laws of their ancestors. They were feeling abandoned by the God of those same ancestors, who had failed to act to prevent them from being exiled. Those who minister among the Native people of this land might think all of this sounds familiar. Just three short weeks ago we celebrated a holiday that hides the great harm that we had inflicted upon those who were caretakers of this land before we got here. For an exiled people, whether that be ancient Israel, American Indians and Canadian First Nations, or refugees fleeing poverty and violence, joy is often the thing furthest from their minds. Yet that is exactly what Deutro-Isaiah is promising to the exiled Jewish community, a joyful return to their ancient home.
Here is where I would normally talk about the Psalm for this Sunday. But Guadete Sunday has long been associated with Mary, the Theotokos. This association continues to this day having the Magnificat, Mary’s song, assigned as an alternative to the Psalm of the day. The Psalm is beautiful and I’m sure I can say a lot about it. But as both a Latino and an Anglo-Catholic, I really have no choice. We’re gonna talk about Mary y’all.
Many non-Latinos tend to think about Marian Devotion as a mark of Catholicism, whether it be of the Roman, Evangelical or Anglican varieties. And of course there is some truth to that, but to Latinos Mary is something very different. The Virgin is part of our lives, and even non-practicing Christians hold a great deal of love for her. But that love of Mary needs to leaves the confines of Latino Christian practice, or even Catholic Christian practice. Mary is in many ways the prototype Christian, and in her life and example we find the pinnacle of Christian behavior. And this passage is central to that example. Here Mary is visiting her cousin, who likely was of a higher social class then she was considering she was married to a priest, and her mind was a mess of emotions. This teenager who was due to be married to a man who likely a stranger or the next best thing just discovered she was pregnant.
Even today teen pregnancies are heavily stigmatized and the young woman are often shunned and sometimes even exiled from their loved ones. Mary had all of that going on, plus the very real chance that she would be murdered, even by her own cousin. Yet her first response when she saw her cousin who praised her was not disbelief, but rather great joy. As my favorite paraphrase puts it “My soul cries out with a joyful shout!” She had every reason to be filled with despair, but instead she respond with pure joy! It seems strange at the least that an emotion we tend to associate with life being good is being embraced so much in a time that should be home to despair.
I think we might understand why if we jump forward a little bit in time, say 1900 years or so. A well beloved figure by many Christians of varying stripes is the Englishman C.S. Lewis. While for many he is best known for his children tales the Chronicles of Narnia, he was also a prolific apologist and popular theologian. While all his writings are worth reading, the one that comes to mind now is Surprised by Joy. Surprised by Joy is an autobiographical book, but it’s focus is on Lewis's conversion to Christianity as an adult. One thing that is notable about the book is his definition of joy. For Lewis “joy” isn’t the sort of glad happy clappy sort of feeling we tend to associate with the word. It is not just happiness or pleasant feeling but rather a deep longing. As Lewis put it “[Joy] is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’” Joy is not something that can be grasped or quantified. It comes from being granted a glimpse, as brief and nondescript as it often is, of something greater and more beautiful than we can ever imagine.
Joy is not the same as the material happiness that comes from this world. This is not to say that things that bring us happiness in life, whether it takes the form of a good book, delicious meal, or even mind blowing sex, are bad and should be avoided. It just means that they are nothing in comparison to true joy given to us by God. To use the language of Jurgen Moltmann, joy is born of the eschatological hope in the return of our Savior and the inauguration of his eternal kingdom. And that is what our readings are about when you get down to it. Duetro-Isaiah saw an image of a world where all lived together in love and peace, one even greater then the lost Kingdom of Israel. Mary saw a world where the poor and the rich switched places and her people were no longer under the heel of an invading foreign power. They were given a glimpse of the promised new creation, and from that glimpse sprung forth a joy that surpassed all words. Even though the world seemed full of grief and doom, they knew that something better was waiting for them, and they sang in joy for it.
And that's where we come in. We live in a world that seems to be in the unbreakable grasp of despair. But as guardians of the Word, we know that despair has no power in our world. From the pulpit we proclaim God’s promise of Christ’s second coming to reign over a commonwealth of peace and justice. At the table we share a taste of that heavenly banquet where all are seated at the table and there is more then enough for everybody. Yes, the world is full of gloom and despair, but Christ is coming. Christ is coming to stir up the complacent world and institute a new way of living. Christ is coming to free us from the power of sin and death, and grant us life immortal. Christ is coming, and that is why we rejoice always.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.