3rd Sunday of Advent, Year A • December 15, 2019 at St. Luke’s

Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent which is known as Gaudete Sunday. The word Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice”; it is a reminder that during this season of expectation and preparation, we acknowledge that Jesus has already come and that he has already accomplished, through his death and resurrection, our redemption. But where did this whole season of Advent come from? We don’t find it in Scripture, at least not explicitly. But its origins are implicitly found in Scripture. Advent is a part of our Christian tradition, which has developed over the centuries and been handed down to us by those who have gone before us. But as with all our traditions, its origins go back to the foundation of our faith.
To understand Advent and what it is all about, we can begin by looking at the meaning of the word “Advent.” It comes from the Latin “advenire”: coming towards. Advent recalls the millennia in which the world waited for a Savior, who all the time was “coming towards” them. It is symbolic of the centuries during which the Jewish people waited for the coming of the Messiah. So we recall in our readings throughout Advent the promise of a Messiah that God had made to his chosen people. And in these readings we find the Scriptural roots of Advent.
But the practice of this season of Advent as we know it goes back to the early centuries of Christianity. By the fourth century, the Church had begun to universally celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25. And in preparation for this great feast day, the tradition of a 40-day fast similar to Lent developed. It would begin after the feast of St. Martin of Tours on November 12 and continue until Christmas. By the ninth century, the 40 day fast had been reduced to the four weeks that we are familiar with, and by the twelfth century the fast had been replaced by abstinence from eating meat. Despite all these changes, however, Advent continued to preserve the characteristics of a penitential season, like a counterpoint to Lent: no organ, no flowers in Church, black vestments (and later purple). And just as in Lent, when about midway through the season we celebrate Laetare Sunday in which the organ gets to be used again, and flowers are permitted in Church, and the priest wears more festive rose-colored vestments, midway through Advent we celebrate Gaudete Sunday as we do today.
So it is a reminder that, while we recall the years when humanity awaited its Savior, we acknowledge that our Savior has already come to redeem us. Advent is a season when we renew our hope in God, that his promises to humanity will be brought to fulfillment when Christ comes again. Each of our readings today deal with this theme of hope, of putting our trust in God.
For example, the prophet Isaiah in our first reading is writing to assure his audience that God will act to restore the kingdom of Israel. Isaiah lived, as did so many of the prophets, during a fearsome period in Jewish history: the Assyrian Empire to the north of Israel had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and reduced the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah to just the city of Jerusalem. Isaiah says that this restoration will be accompanied by signs pointing to the coming of the Messiah, when the usual order of things will be overthrown. The blind see, the deaf here, and the lame walk. But this reading was meant not just for the Jews of Isaiah’s era; it is also meant for us, for we are in exile in this world, awaiting the day when we can return to our true home: heaven. What this reading gives us is an image of heaven: no more barrenness, no more disease and death. And in response to this promise, Isaiah calls upon his audience, and us, to “be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense, he comes to save you.”
Like Isaiah, St. James in our second reading further develops this theme of hopeful expectation that the reign of God has both begun and is yet to come. James challenges his community to wait patiently for the Lord’s return, which seemed to them to be overdue. After all, they were expecting Jesus to return soon, at the very least in their lifetimes. James calls on his readers and on us to look to the prophets of old for an example of patient endurance. His point is that once the prophets had proclaimed what God commanded them to say, they then waited patiently and confidently for God to bring these promises to fulfillment.
John the Baptist too was waiting for the Messiah that he had been proclaiming. And so from prison, having heard of the amazing works that Jesus is performing, he asks his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the long-awaited Messiah. It seems that John the Baptist’s faith was being tested while he languished in prison, and he was beginning to wonder if Jesus was truly the Messiah. Jesus responds to this question by speaking of the miracles that he has performed: miracles about which Isaiah had prophesied centuries before. In other words, the prophecies were coming true: the Messiah had come, and it was indeed Jesus. Furthermore, John the Baptist himself is the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies: he is new Elijah who has come to herald the coming of the Messiah. Jesus makes clear that in his preaching and in his miracles he is announcing the advent or the coming of the kingdom of God into this world: the One who had been proclaimed and expected for so long has now come.
Jesus’ message – and the message from all our readings – is to put our trust in God. And trust implies that we can’t see what is around the corner. If we knew what was coming, there would be no need for trust. But trust doesn’t necessarily mean never having any doubts. Even John the Baptist – the one who had been proclaiming the coming of the Messiah and who had baptized Jesus in the Jordan – was having his doubts. Trust means going forward with God in spite of our doubts. When life does not go the way we would like or the way we had expected, it is normal for doubts and fears to arise in our hearts. But then we have a choice. We can let these doubts and fears control us and how we live our lives. We can try to numb ourselves through addictive substances or behaviors. We can complain relentlessly. We can become resentful of God and of others. Ultimately this option leads to despair: we do whatever we want with our lives because we don’t trust that God’s promises will be fulfilled and so we think it doesn’t matter how we live.
Or we can choose to acknowledge our doubts and fears, and we can bring them to the Lord in prayer. We can resolve not to let them control us and how we live our lives. We can practice patience in the midst of the uncertainty. We can reach out to others who may have likewise gone through or are going through something times of doubt. We can continue to live our lives according to God’s will, striving to keep his commands, striving to love one another. We can renew again and again our confidence in God, that he really is in charge, that he desires what is best for us, and that ultimately he will not disappoint us. And even more than that, he will fulfill our deepest desires beyond what we could ever imagine.
And so Advent is a season of hopeful expectation that God’s promises will be brought to fulfillment. For that reason today we are reminded to rejoice.