Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 17.)

“Rejoice in the Lord, always! Again, I say rejoice! The Lord is near.”

This Scripture, which is the entrance antiphon for today’s liturgy, is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (4:4).

The third Sunday of Advent, is sometimes called “Gaudete Sunday,” gaudete being the Latin word for “rejoice.” The readings and prayers for the liturgy today encourage us to allow our expectation and vigilance for the Lord’s coming to be one of joyful hope.

Likewise, the liturgical color for the day is “rose,” as is the third candle of the Advent wreath. The bright color, which contrasts with the dark purple candles, invites us to rejoice.

We can sense joy in John the Baptist when he is questioned by the priests and Levites In today’s Gospel. After clearly and emphatically stating that he is not the Christ, John identifies himself as “the voice of one crying in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.” The dawn of salvation is at hand, and John knows it. When finally asked about his baptism, he responds, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” Christ’s coming is the reason for joy.

Joy is also evident in the first reading, taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, and in the alleluia verse that echoes it. The prophet says, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.”

The “year of favor” and “day of vindication” are expressions that denote God’s special blessing on mankind. He will visit his people and lift them up in joy, delivering them from all that oppresses. In the present context, we may recall that we live in the “day of salvation” or “year of the Lord.” Since the advent of Christ, and through his passion, death and resurrection, the day of salvation has arrived and there is no end to this day or year. The Isaian proclamation harkens to a time where salvation, healing and freedom come upon the people.

Fast forward several hundred years to Jesus’ inauguration of his public ministry in Nazareth. In the synagogue, Jesus is given the Isaiah scroll for a reading. He finds this passage, proclaims it and then says, “Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Salvation has come in Christ Jesus, and so joy accompanies us in all seasons and times.

The Blessed Mother likewise sings a song of joy in her Magnificat. The hymn of praise and thanksgiving is proclaimed after she is greeted by Elizabeth in the account of the visitation (Luke 1:39-45). The song serves today as the responsorial (which is normally one of the psalms).

Mary, like John the Baptist, recognizes the dawn of the day of salvation. God has remembered his “lowly servant,” and so she says, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” She cannot contain her joy, but must proclaim the greatness of what has happened to her and what is happening to Israel and mankind.

Again, the call to rejoice is heard in the second reading, taken from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians. Here Paul exhorts us to “rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks …”

The realization of God’s love and mercy poured out in Christ Jesus is the wellspring of joy. He has given us life through his victory over death. He has broken the bonds of sin through forgiveness. He has shattered the darkness with his light. St. Paul prays that God will continue his saving activity in the lives of the Thessalonians by making them “perfectly holy” and “entirely, (in) spirit, soul, and body” blameless so as to be ready for the Lord’s return. This is our prayer as well.

“Joy,” “rejoicing,” and “gladness” are words we often hear this time of the year, especially with the intensified religious aspects of the season. Many times, these words refer to holiday celebrations — to gatherings with family and friends, decorations, festivities and parties, dinners and time together. This is all well and good.

It is interesting, however, that a time of year when so much emphasis is placed on festivity is also a peak season for sadness and depression. Anxiety can accompany the pressures of shopping, preparations and expectations. Sadness comes with the absence of loved ones who have passed.

Today, we are invited to go to a deeper level of joy, something that comes from within us, from the depths of our being — the joy of being loved and saved by God. This is a joy that all are invited to experience and share.

Recognizing this love fills us with hope and allows us, no matter where we are in life or what we are experiencing, to proclaim, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say rejoice!”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.