The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday or Rejoice Sunday. On the Advent wreath it is marked by the pink candle. Our first two readings are filled with thoughts of joy. Zephaniah commands, “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! ...The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” Zephaniah prophesies that the Lord will renew his people in his love and will even “sing joyfully because of you.” Likewise in our second reading from Philippians, Paul commands, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Both passages emerge in the context of very challenging situations. Before King Josiah’s reforms, the people of Judah were worshipping the gods Baal and Astarte even in the Temple. Zephaniah chastises Jerusalem: “Woe to the city, rebellious and polluted” (Zep 3:1). The Philippians are struggling as well. Paul had converted them and enjoyed their support in his missionary journeys. But the community is suffering from persecution or even possibly dissension (1:28–30) and from those twisting the Gospel, whom Paul calls dogs and evil workers (3:2). On top of that, Paul writes from prison in Ephesus and is so sick he thinks he may die (1:22–26).
From where does this joy, then, come? For Zephaniah it comes from God’s plans for his people. “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged,” God proclaims. God’s ultimate word is not condemnation, but exaltation. From Paul, it comes from the assurance of God’s presence within. “Have no anxiety,” Paul tells them. Rather, placing all before God, “prayer and petition,” ensures the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding.”
Trial and suffering are never goods in and of themselves. For people of faith, however, they can provide an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. They force us to lean on God, to depend on God, to come to God stripped of all our pretentions and facades. In his horrifying and moving account of a Nazi concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl realized something that surprised him: “In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness…it was possible for the spiritual life to deepen…. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret…The salvation of man is through love and in love…. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
In the Gospel reading we find John the Baptist exhorting those who come to repent. His demands are, in a sense, modest: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” To the tax collectors and soldiers, he simply commanded that they not use their positions of power to exploit others. John makes it clear that he is not the expected messiah: “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John’s anticipation is the final fulfillment of Zephaniah’s prophecy. There will be purification and even judgment (fire) as well as glorious salvation (Holy Spirit). And they will both come from Christ. Zephaniah foresaw God among his people, a God who “sings joyfully” because of his people. Thanks be to God, he is now among us in Christ, and he gives us every reason to rejoice. What we prepare to commemorate at Christmas has actually happened. As Zephaniah commands, we should “shout for joy.” Is it completed? We know that it is not. We still “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). And much of our faith journey is punctuated by suffering. Still, it is not a faith-walk absent from the salvation of the Lord, but one living in the Lord, where we can know the peace of God that goes beyond all understanding. It is ultimately in God that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The challenge of living still in much darkness is less to cling to our salvation yet to come and more to recognize the conquering light in the midst of darkness.