The 3rd Sunday of Advent is that day when priests around the world boldly don pink vestments and try to convince people they’re actually wearing “rose.” Let the pink jokes commence.
More importantly, let the joyful repentance commence. This Sunday is a reminder to us that repentance and joy are meant to go together!
Advent is a penitential season, meaning it is a time for repentance and eager preparation. We are preparing for Christmas, yes, but above all else we long intensely for the coming of Jesus in glory.
When Jesus comes again in full justice, all that is hidden will be made manifest. Each individual and every collective group will have their stories told in full truth, with all the nations assembled to hear it. No longer will the wicked succeed in deluding themselves and others, shading the truth and cloaking their misdeeds in shadow. Jesus will reveal and unveil; Jesus will judge; Jesus will vindicate.
Hence the penitential nature of Advent. Apart from repentance and mercy, who can possibly stand in the face of his full truth-telling? We began Advent crying out in our longing amidst the darkness, humbly recognizing that we cannot escape the fallenness of this world without a Savior.
But we so easily forget that Jesus’ main motive in coming again is to invite us into the eternal wedding feast! He desires to share his JOY with us. Just read the Gospels. Notice how many stories take place within the context of a meal, or how many of the parables describe feasting at table. One of the chief accusations against Jesus is that he welcomes sinners and dines with them (Luke 15:2).
Jesus proceeds to tell three stories: about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. The final story (which we tend to call “the prodigal son”) is addressed directly to the Pharisees and scribes, who are much more like the joyless older son! Both sons have become miserable in their sins. The father’s only interest is to invite them into a feast! He will gladly relinquish any claim of condemnation against them – if that is their desire. The story ends unconcluded. We don’t get to hear whether or not the older son repents and decides to enter the feast. The bigger question is what each of us will decide.
The 3rd Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday – Gaudete being Latin for “Rejoice!” In places where the Mass is said in Latin, the opening antiphon begins with the chanting of that word Gaudete, quoting the words of Paul in Philippians 4:4-5:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.
Rejoice always – even when the powers of darkness seem to be prevailing. Rejoice always, even when you feel HopeSick. Rejoice always, even when you find yourself mired in sin and powerless to change.
The Lord is near. He is eager to be present to us. Jesus speaks his “I do” to his bride, the Church, at the altar of the Cross. He promises to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Our infidelity doesn’t alter his unconditional commitment to be good to us.
Not only does he still love us, but he still invites us to feast with him in joy! We have a hard time wrapping our minds around that invitation.
Repentance is NOT a matter of feeling bad about ourselves. That is shame. Feeling shame following sin goes back to our first parents in Eden. It is perhaps normal to feel shame in our shattered state, but more often than not our shame hinders true repentance. Adam hid from God as from a tyrant. Even in that moment, God promised salvation through “the woman” and her offspring, who will crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15).
We cannot crush the head of the serpent ourselves; we don’t have to. Jesus has already won that victory. He is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. He gladly washes us of our sins in the blood he poured out for us. More importantly, he invites us into the wedding feast of the lamb! He desires a one-flesh union with us in the eternal marriage feast!
We feel badly, of course, about what we have done – especially when we see and name the ways in which our sins have harmed others and harmed us. Like the prophets, we weep over the ruins of Jerusalem – caused in part by the harm others have done to us, caused in part by the harm in which we have willingly colluded.
Jesus, in the line of the prophets, also wept over Jerusalem. He weeps over their sins, yes. Even more, he weeps over the harm their sins have done. But if we read the text, his greatest grief (like the father in Luke 15) is that they do not desire to receive the love and delight that is freely being offered!
Tearful repentance and joy are meant to go together. Just as the Paschal Triduum is one integral celebration, so also our weeping over the ruin caused by sin is meant to be, simultaneously, a joyful entry into the Kingdom as beloved sons and daughters who truly belong there.
In Catholic and Anglican Tradition, there are Seven Penitential Psalms. Depending on your Bible’s Psalm numbering, those are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 141. They express anguished sorrow over the harm of sin, but they are ultimately songs of joyful repentance. Psalm 6 begins with tear-filled lament but boldly proclaims that God has heard the cry of my weeping (verse 9). There will be swift vindication against my foes. Psalm 51 begins with David’s tearful repentance from his grave sins. It concludes with tender confidence that David will joyfully sing of God’s justice (verse 16) and proclaim his praises (verse 17), and that God will rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Psalm 130 cries out from the depths, but proclaims the abundant redemption freely offered by God.
This is the Christian paradox. Sorrow and joy are not opposites. In fact, the path of Beatitude invites us to discover joy amidst our grieving.
Repentance is not a matter of beating ourselves up until God and others feel sorry for us. Rather, repentance invites us to open ourselves to both experiences: intense sorrow and intense joy. Truthfully facing what we have done and truthfully acknowledging our ruined human condition – that takes courage and many tears. Most of us spend most of our life (like the Pharisees and scribes) hardening our hearts against the full human experience, preferring the shallowness of legal observance and give-so-I-can-get transactions. When we open ourselves up to true repentance, and to the full depths of grief, we discover the great surprise of joy.