Through numerous Prayer Books and eucharistic traditions, the prophet Zephaniah has set the theme and tone of this Sunday, when he wrote in the 7th century before Christ, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
And the old Latin anthems reflected these older scriptures as they sang the verses from Philippians which we have read this morning:
Gaudete in Domino semper; iterum dico, gaudete!
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”
And this pattern was then completed on Christmas morning with the traditional proclamation:
Gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria Virgine!
Rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary!
And so today the rose pink candle on the Advent Crown is lit. In Church tradition, since early art and liturgy, the color pink has represented joy and celebration.
(As an aside, it was also the early traditional color of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The blue, which we see in most art since medieval times, is what we inherit today.)
This day of rejoicing, this Gaudete Sunday is then marred by John the Baptist throwing insults around.
“You brood of vipers!” He cried. He was clearly having a bad day. Advent shopping in 1st century Palestine was no fun.
Little did he know that we would still be reading his words of insult all these centuries later. How dare he spoil this glorious opportunity to rejoice as we prepare for the Christmas season?
Yet perhaps it is good that he does so, for it shakes our holiday certainty and reminds us that our rejoicing is imperfect and incomplete.
As I said last Sunday, and countless Sunday in years past – we need the rude and discomforting figure of John the Baptist.
Rejoicing is the theme of so much that goes on over the Christmas season.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Christmas can be fun. I tire of people, many of them clergy, who wish to impose a puritan-style interpretation of the celebrations. Theirs was a dour, lifeless joy.
People will celebrate as they prepare for Christmas, with the tree in place and meals planned, guests invited and gifts exchanged. Yes, Christmas can be fun!
However, to assume that the decorations and celebrations are the faithful response to the Christmas story would again be incomplete. Revelry for its own sake is always rather empty and meaningless.
It also denies the fact that at this and every Christmas many cannot be jolly, or else have no-one with whom to share the lights and the gifts of the season.
No – this is no empty worldly celebration, for at the heart of it all lays something that is anything but tinsel and glitter, pine needles and eggnog, and increased retail numbers for December.
Zephaniah was writing in Israel, not at a time of celebration but in years of scepticism and social corruption. Yet even in peoples' pain he still exhorts them to “Rejoice!” Why? Because, as he teaches them and proclaimed, “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.”
Writing to a newly formed church in Philippi (in the north of what is now Greece) the Apostle Paul again tells the faithful people to rejoice, pointing out that “The Lord is near.”
And John the Baptist, having cooled off after insulting almost everyone insight, announced, “One who is more powerful than I is coming.”
Now we are beginning to grasp the Advent message. The message is now becoming clearer. It is indeed a time to rejoice, but not in the way the world rejoices.
We rejoice because, and proclaim that:
The Lord is near!