Today is Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from the Latin word for rejoice which we find in today’s entrance antiphon, which itself comes from St Paul’s command to rejoice. It is a reminder of what Advent is about. Advent is a time of preparation, but preparation makes no sense unless there is something for which we are preparing. Hard work should have a point.
Today’s readings call us to reflect on our understanding of preparation. They do this by focussing on two things. The first is the joy that informs our preparation. The second is a reminder that preparation by itself is not enough. We need that joy which comes with Christ, the joy that is life in the Holy Spirit.
Our first reading from Isaiah reminds us of what we celebrate. It has a sense of growing joy. Different types of joy give way to still more joyous types. The first few types are the joy that comes from something negative being removed from our life. The joy of forgiveness: the Lord has repealed our sentence. Then, the joy of safety, when a fear is removed from our life because the Lord protects us.
Then, the joy changes to a completely positive one. A joy which needs nothing, which is not dependent on something negative being removed. It is the joy of being in love, and, most especially, the joy of being loved. God is exulting in us. God is renewing us by his love. God cannot help but dance for joy at the sight of us. This is the joy we have when we see someone we love, when we see their face light up because they have seen us. It is the joy of being greeted at the airport, of meeting old friends in pubs, of coming home to one’s family. It is the deep joy that is at the heart of life, from which all else draws life, which alone brings light into the world.
With this joy comes a sense of anticipation. That feeling as you come through customs, as you arrive at the pub or pull-up in the driveway. We hear this anticipation in our Gospel. People are getting excited about John the Baptist, so they start asking him, what should we do? How should we prepare? His answer is interesting. He says, Just do your job. Go about your normal life. He doesn’t even tell tax collectors to stop collecting taxes. He just tells them to collect no more than is required.
But he is quick to point out why this is the case. It is because the joy is not something you can control. It is not something which can be turned on or off. It is a gift. Do your job, but don’t think that will be enough for the joy. Don’t think that preparation guarantees it. Preparation is necessary but not sufficient.
We are not in control of joy. It is something wild. It is the Holy Spirit. As John says, I prepare the way of the Lord, but I am not the Lord. We are waiting for the one who comes after, who will bring the Holy Spirit.
I remember reading a book on building Christian communities. The author has a section on celebrations. He says they are crucial to the life of a community. That one needs to prepare for them, that one needs to work very hard to ensure they go correctly. However, he immediately corrects himself by saying, you always have to remember that no amount of preparation can guarantee the success of a party.
One finds a similar point in the lyrics of a song by a band called, perhaps ironically, the Rapture. They sing:
I think everyone here can agree That a party ain't great cuz the booze is free Naw the free spirits ain't settin' no one's spirits free
This is something we all know. No matter how hard we work, we are never sure that a dinner party or a birthday party will be a success. There is always something that cannot be contained. One needs to do the work, but the work does not guarantee success. This is the nature of grace: it requires our work but we do not dictate it. It is truly of God.
But unlike the anxiety of preparing for parties, hoping things will go right, we do not need anxiety at Christmas. If we do our jobs, if we live out our vocations, we have nothing to fear. In Christ, we have the sure promise of our future. His love for us overflows. Knowing God’s love for us, the love that makes God dance, is what prompts St Paul’s exuberance in our second reading.
So let us pray that the joy of Christ can take over our hearts. That we might do our work, always knowing that our work will only truly be finished when, as with Mass, our offering is given back to us in the person of Jesus, God’s love made flesh.