Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, brings us one of the two days in the liturgical year when rose-colored vestments are used, a visible sign that the reason for our season of vigil is coming very soon. We know that the birth of Jesus is very near, and with that anticipation the entrance antiphon for Mass today calls on us to rejoice for our salvation is near at hand. Since this year gives us the shortest possible time for the Advent season, the urgency of our Lord’s arrival is heightened. Thus far, our reflection on the season has focused on the nature and purpose of vigils. Knowing the time is short, how do we enter into the vigil-quality of this season without getting distracted by the fact that the goal is in sight?
Last week I wrote about the importance of keeping watch, being mindful and alert to the ways that God is present, and being aware of those places where God is calling us to grow in holiness. Silence is a tremendous tool for keeping an effective vigil, and for growing in our ability to hear the voice of the Lord. As we rejoice today in the spirit of Gaudete Sunday, we might take our next lesson in vigil-keeping from the Gospel we hear at Mass. Patience. Notice how John the Baptist is patient with the questions being put to him. The very questions themselves indicate a sense of urgency, and even suggest that they have been asked before. Perseverance. The Jews have waited for the Messiah, they have endured patiently (and sometimes impatiently), and have kept the vigil. Now they see John, a radical figure, and they begin to wonder who he is and if this is the sign of the Messiah they have long awaited. Even as the questions – “Who are you?” – have an urgent tone, they are asked within the context of a prophetic tradition that keeps the interlocutors grounded. They know that they cannot jump to conclusions, that they must discern carefully, and that God’s time is perfect. So it is that the questioners and the one being questioned patiently engage in dialogue. The questions and John’s answers to them are necessary parts of the process of keeping watch. The prophets had long foretold that before the Christ would come the great prophet who would prepare the way. Thus, it is necessary to watch for and listen to the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. This mystery must be encountered first, and only after it has been discovered can the mystery of the Messiah be fully welcomed.
Next Sunday is both the 4th Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve. We mark two necessary mysteries. First, we will complete the last part of our vigil. Second, we will keep watch with the shepherds for the Messiah. It is important that we embrace both mysteries, both celebrations. Patience and perseverance is required. When we recognize that the complete vigil is needed and part of the process, we celebrate two distinct liturgies. I sometimes worry that the Christmas Eve vigil Masses can be approached as a task to get out of the way before the real party can begin. And so I would like to encourage an approach more like what we hear in the Gospel today. A necessary dialogue, patiently engaged, perseverance in hope, and an understanding that God is at the heart of these mysteries we commemorate. The most important part of our observance of Christmas is rooted in our liturgical celebration of Mass. We should see attending Mass as the heart of our Christmas observance, not something that interferes with opening presents or meal times. Please note the special Mass schedule for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Thank you for your understanding, as the marathon of Christmas Masses begins. And thank you for engaging with patience, perseverance, and today especially, with rejoicing, as we anticipate the coming of the Messiah, who is Jesus Christ the Lord.