Third Sunday of Advent
Back in the olden days, when I was little, the color of Advent was not blue but purple. The color was changed early in the 20th century to make Advent less of a “little Lent” and more of a distinct liturgical season of hope. The blue color is intended to remind us of the color of the sky just before dawn, the promise that Christ did indeed come to be among us, that Christ is with us now, and that Christ will come again in power and majesty. Also, this particular shade of blue is often associated with Mary in liturgical art, and since she is a key figure in this season, it seems fitting that she “colors” the whole season. The ancient Greeks called Mary Theotokos, literally “God-Bearer.” Perhaps blue suggests we follow her example of being available to God, expecting the great joy that is to come.
But back in my youth, the color was purple—mostly. The exception to this rule was that the third Sunday of Advent was rose-colored (we don’t use the word “pink” for serious matters like church paraments or vestments!). There was a pink, um, rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath, and this Sunday was called Gaudete Sunday, meaning Rejoice Sunday. It was placed near the end but not AT the end of the season of Advent as a reminder that the answer to all our prayers is near. The season of repentance and sorrow do not last forever, but that Jesus indeed, breaks into our world bringing joy and peace.
Why not celebrate Gaudete on the 4th Sunday of Advent, then, when Christmas is just around the corner? Why put it near the middle of the season? I don’t know if this is the liturgically correct answer, but I can tell you that I always thought it was because when you can see the finish line, it’s easier to wait. When the sun is rising up over the world, somehow it feels like a new beginning is possible, whereas in the dead of night, weighed down with struggles and fears, the dark seems endless.
Perhaps that’s why John the Baptist’s story occurs at this place in the season. He’s in quite a different place than he was when we heard from him last week— literally and metaphorically! Last week he was a booming presence out in the wilderness, calling people to repent and be baptized, accusing the religious hypocrites of being a brood of vipers, and warning everyone that Jesus was coming with a scythe to cut down any tree that didn’t bear good fruit.
Today he is in prison, sent there for preaching truth to power, and worried that his ministry was all for naught. He sends his disciples with a poignant question for Jesus, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or should we look for another?” Who can blame him for wondering? It’s not hard to understand why someone who thought he was doing God’s work could feel deflated when all that hard work results in incarceration and public shame. Maybe some of you have felt that terrible flip from hope to desperation, from optimism about the future to a diagnosis of something awful, or a loss of employment, or the end of a relationship. If you are in a place of darkness like John, you might well feel like Gaudate, Rejoice Sunday, is a slap in the face of your reality. Rejoice? How is that even possible?
How does Jesus respond to John’s wail against the struggle? He doesn’t answer John’s question about whether or not he is the Messiah with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead he points to what is going on around him, because of him. He invites John and others to see and hear what kings and prophets longed for, coming to fruition because Jesus is on the loose. He instructs John’s followers: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:4–6).
John, the greatest preacher, was being preached to! John, the greatest man born of a woman and “more than a prophet” was now hearing from the one born of a virgin, the one who fulfilled all the prophecies of their forebears in the faith. Jesus blessed John in jail as well as all those who had believed what he’d preached. Even though John couldn’t observe or measure the success or church growth that resulted from his preaching, Jesus blessed him beyond measure. Maybe we, who sometimes are tempted to determine whether or not our church is on the right path on the basis of finances or demographics or attendance can be encouraged here.
Because there can be healing even when there is no cure. John remained in prison until he was eventually beheaded. And yet, Jesus’ blessing gave him a reason to rejoice, in spite of his circumstances. John’s mission and purpose in life were validated by the ministry and miracles of Jesus, who loved the lonely, kept company with the disenfranchised, healed the sick, and forgave the guilty. It’s as if Jesus were reassuring his cousin, “John, while you sit in prison, thinking you are accomplishing nothing, do you know what’s happening? I, the one you preached about, am restoring all creation. Though you are persecuted and poor now, rejoice, for great is your reward in heaven. Therefore, be comforted. Do not be frightened. If this is true for all of those who hear the Word of God, then, it is true for you as well.”
Jesus seems to suggest that in the midst of grief and sadness, even though good people are suffering persecution, even if there is no restoration, even if there is no healing or cure for a sickness there is a deep-down joy in knowing we are loved by God. And that’s why the pink candle came in the middle of the purple ones. Because we need to be reminded that joy is still present, even when things are at the bleakest point. When we feel furthest from success, and wonder if anything good can come from the mess we are in, Jesus makes the blind see, the mute speak and the dead rise. He causes the persecuted to rejoice. Hang in there! Jesus fulfills God’s own promises, and assures us of eternal life and love, when it looks like death is winning. You need look no further, nor wait for one else: Jesus is the promised One who has come to bring you joy.
~Pastor Susan Schneider