December 14, 2014
Third Sunday of Advent
First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Bad circumstances beget bad attitudes. When things go wrong, we tend to go wrong with them. When there are financial problems or heart-break or when we feel constrained beyond comfort by our circumstances, we can get to feeling down-trodden, beaten up, and dare I say it, self-pitying—the exact opposite of how anyone actually wants to feel. Fortunately, the Lord beckons us to a different perspective. In this Sunday’s reading from Isaiah, we are invited not to wallow in the mud of our troubles, but to be like a bride bedecked with jewels.
Isaiah 61 comes toward the end of the prophet’s book, in the section which announces God’s consolation of his people. The text starts off with the voice of the Messiah, announcing the year of favor from the Lord. Following these few verse, the voice shifts (by v. 8 at the latest) to the Lord himself and then shifts again to the nation of Israel, personified as a woman, the bride of the Lord. In the selection for the Sunday reading, verses 2b-9 are omitted, so we only hear the Messiah and the bride, the moment of hope announced and the joy-filled response to that announcement.
In words that are very familiar, the Anointed One proclaims the release of prisoners, good news for the poor, comfort for the mourner and healing for the heartbroken. These exciting reversals of sad fortunes might at first seem random, but they are linked deep into the early parts of Scripture, where God mandates a “Jubilee Year” (Leviticus 25). This very special time, a Sabbath among Sabbath years, would only take place once every fifty years. But when it did, prisoners and slaves would be freed, property would be returned to its ancestral owners who had become so poor that they had to sell it. The evil circumstances of life would be undone in a special way.
The New Jubilee of Jesus
Now notably, the Jubilee Year does not seem to have been fully implemented at any point in Israel’s history, but remained an ideal just beyond reach—a divine plan that had imperfect human leaders to enact it. They didn’t do a great job. However, Jesus comes as the new Son of David (heir to the throne of Israel) and the Messiah (anointed one). He not only embodies the themes of Isaiah 61, but actually reads this text publically in the synagogue and announces that it is being fulfilled in his ministry (see Luke 4). Jesus implements the Jubilee in his own life, by his ministry, death, and resurrection. He frees us from the slavery of sin. He reverses our fortunes, delivering us from the prison of our own making—and from the wrath of God—that we might receive mercy instead of judgment. While in Leviticus, the Jubilee was to be a given calendar year, in the New Testament, Jesus himself embodies the Jubilee year. He is the Jubilee and we can enter into this powerful mystery whenever we choose to. However, this Gaudete (Rejoice!) Sunday, the Church reminds us of this reality so that we can enter into the joy of Jesus’ Jubilee ministry.
How to Rejoice
While we have liturgical traditions that highlight the idea of rejoicing—the liturgical color of “rose” (pink) is meant to indicate a spirit of joy; the prayers for the day also have a note of joy—much of the time, we don’t really know how to actually rejoice. So to help us get an idea of what to do, this reading gives us the example of Israel rejoicing. Her joy erupts in God-directed praise that takes the form of self-description. Israel sees herself like a bride, like a priest, like a bridegroom, covered with jewels and fine clothing, heartily exulting in God and the salvation he brings. The idea of clothing oneself with joy connects to St. Paul’s principle of being clothed with Christ, the new self, and the armor of God (see Eph 6:11; Rom 13:12-14; Col 3:10-14). The joy of the Lord is not a mere trivial positive attitude, but a soul-level response to the victory which he has won.
Making the Past Present
For us, the salvation he has won can often feel like a story from ancient history, and this is why we need the liturgy—to make present that which we read about in the Bible. Our way of rejoicing has little to do with learning new facts or facets of biblical history, but of entering into the mysteries which the Bible presents. The way into the joy of the Lord is through a deep meditation, reflection on the reality of our salvation. We need to realize how awesome the gift of salvation really is. Then we can find ourselves in accord with the spirit of joy in Isaiah 61, sensing God’s praise and righteousness welling up and sprouting as spring flowers in a beautiful garden.
Rejoicing in the Jubilee Year of Christ’s reign might seem like an effort in fruitless denial—callously ignoring all the problems of our lives and our world. But rather, rejoicing is an exercise in hope that acknowledges the terrifyingly wonderful truth that in the end God will win, evil will lose, the problems will be overcome, and the innocent will be vindicated. Our rejoicing in the coming reign of the Christ-child reflects our remembrance of his salvific deeds in the past, our participation in them through our present sufferings and our looking forward to his final coming in the end. It turns out that pink is meant to re-orient our perspective from self-pity to the powerful presence of the coming King. Rejoice!