Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is known as Gaudete Sunday. Unlike the other Sundays of Advent, the liturgical vestments and candle for today are light rose, which signifies both the dawn and impending sunrise of Christmas day. “Gaudete” is the second person, imperative form of the Latin verb gaudeo, which means to rejoice and be glad. We are exhorted to be glad, because soon the sun will dispel the night and the people living in darkness will see a great light (Isa 9:2, Mt 4:16).
The readings in the Roman Catholic lectionary are taken from Isaiah (61:1-2, 10-11), Luke (1:46-54), 1 Thessalonians (5:16-24), and John (1:6-8, 19-28). They speak of joy, light, exaltation, and release from bondage and death. The passage from Luke in which Mary “magnifies” the Lord is known as the Magnificat, which scholars believe to be one of the earliest liturgical hymns in the church.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his humble servant (Lk 1:46-48).
In the passage, sung as a psalm response, Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Elizabeth hails Mary as “blessed among women” (Lk 1:42), and Mary acknowledges that the Lord has favored her. She is his “humble servant.”
That the Lord has favored an adolescent girl of humble birth conforms with two major themes in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The first is that nothing is impossible for God, who “can do all things” (Job 42:2). In Numbers, the Lord says to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not” (11:23). And the Gospel of Luke puts it plainly: “For nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37).
This reminds me of Philip Roth’s short story, “The Conversion of the Jews” (1958), in which two boys at Hebrew school debate whether Mary could conceive a child without having intercourse. Ozzie Freedman insists that she can, arguing that if God “…could create the heaven and earth in six days, and make all the animals and the fish and the light in six days—the light especially, that’s what always gets me, that He could make the light….why couldn’t He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse?” For asking the question Ozzie is sent to the rabbi’s office.
The second theme has to do with the complete overturning of human values and the human condition so that the last are first, the lowly raised high, the proud humbled, the lame walk, and the blind see. After magnifying God’s name, Mary proclaims that God “has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy…” (Lk 1:53-54).
A clear example of overturned values in the Hebrew scriptures is David, whom God chose from all of Jesse’s sons to be the greatest king of Israel (1 Sam 16:1-13). Likewise, Paul explains to the Christians at Corinth that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” and that is why “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-11). Of course, the foremost example of conventional logic turned on its head is the crucified Messiah who suffers humiliation and defeat only to give new life to the world.
Do not let the rose-colored vestments and candle fool you. The power of Gaudete Sunday lies in the radical truthfulness of its message, a message of salvation that is assured despite those who reject it or hide in fear. This includes those who would scoff at the message as mere myth or reduce it to topical issues of social justice. For it speaks to the hardheartedness that drives injustice in the first place and the need for genuine humility.
We rejoice because of Mary’s humility and her willingness to accept the role that God asked her to play in salvation. That role brought her the greatest joy and the deepest sorrow, as it may for all those who follow her son. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:12-13).
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