Christmas is the season of joy. It is about the joy of the coming of the Lord among us. As in one of my most well-loved Christmas Carols, Joy to the World!

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing

The readings for this 3rd Sunday of Advent are all about joy. St. Paul in the Second Reading commends the Philippians:

“Brothers and sisters: rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again, rejoice.”

The word for rejoice in Latin is gaudete. Thus, this Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday.

The Church boldly  exhort people on this Third Sunday of Advent, ready or not, to rejoice. The joy that the church exhort the people is not, however, cheap and superficial joy.  It is not an escapist joy that numbs us and forgets all about the pain and sorrow in this life. As the song of Redemptorist Fr. Oli Castor goes,

How can I possibly sing a joyous Christmas song
when there’s so many people who know not where they belong

The joy of Christmas is not the fleeting joy that serves as an escape from the sad reality of our lives, which sadly has been the scourge for many of our people come every Christmas. It is rather the profound joy borne out of God’s immersion into the messiest and muddiest experiences of our humanity.

The readings also speaks of joy but not the shallow and cheap joy. In the first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, the part we read this Sunday comes from a hymn celebrating the survival of the faithful remnant, a passage that commentators judge was added after the Babylonian Captivity. It is sung, therefore, by a group that has passed through tough times. In the midst of those difficulties they have come to know the presence of God so vividly that they can picture that the Lord “will sing joyfully … as one sings at festivals.” How did they get to be rejoicing survivors? In an earlier chapter the prophet had said,

Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth,
who have observed his law;
Seek justice, seek humility;
perhaps you may be sheltered
on the day of the Lord’s anger (Zeph 2:3).

In the Second Reading, when Paul exhorts the Philippians to rejoice, he is in a captivity of his own, in Roman custody. Like others who have been able to deal prayerfully with the enforced solitude of incarceration, he is able to urge rejoicing on much the same basis as Zephaniah’s surviving Judahites: he has come to know the presence of the Lord. It is not wishful thinking but personal testimony that stands behind his pep talk:

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

In the gospel, the crowds John encountered in the desert had, themselves, little reason for joy about the happenings in their lives during that time. Yet they share a joyous and hopeful expectation of the coming of the Messiah who will deliver them from their lethargy and gloom. The people in long rows, gathering to be baptized in the wilderness, was expecting the Savior who is to come. In this context of joyful expectation, John exhorts the people to take concrete small steps towards making changes in their lives and the actual situation. The work for a better world is preparation for the coming of Christ. It is also a sign that the coming of Christ is near.  Each segment (the crowd, the tax collectors, the soldiers) asked John the Baptist the question: “Teacher, what should we do?”

He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”

Rita Ferrone notes that Pope Francis echoed this passage in his address to 2014 Collegeville Conference on Liturgy, Music, and the Arts:

The crowds asked Pope Francis, “What then should we do?” To the pastors he said “Get out of the sacristy! Go and be with your people; smell like your sheep!” To the wealthy nations he said, “Give up your trickle down economic theories! Address the injustices that hold the poor in bondage.” To the religious he said “Answer the questions of the CDF,* but don’t let their investigations dismay you. Continue in your ministry!” [1]

Christmas is a season of joy borne out of the coming of the Lord in our midst. The coming of the Lord is both exciting and demanding. Christmas joy is the Lord Jesus Christ walking with us as we take small and steady steps in reforming our lives and transforming the world we live in.

Before Christmas, what little change can we make within ourselves and in our family, workplace and community we belong?



[1] July 7, 2014, Rita Ferrone, Church Reform, Pope Francis