Homily for Mass of Gaudete Sunday (3rd Sunday of Advent) Year B

17 Dec 2023

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 17 December 2023

“Enjoy!” the young lady said to me as she handed me a café latte recently. My instinct was to correct her grammar, to suggest that “Rejoice” would be a better imperative or subjunctive verb. But you can’t complain when a young person is wishing you well, maybe even blessing you without realising it. And today is Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday, as if the Church is saying “Enjoy” as it passes out word and sacrament.

“Hold on!” I hear the Advent purists complain, “those wicked department stores shouldn’t have Christmas decorations up in September. Street choirs shouldn’t be singing Christmas carols in Advent. Offices shouldn’t be having Christmas parties all December. As for St Mary’s Cathedral: your Christmas light show should be for the Twelve Days after Christmas, not before—even if all Sydney has gone on holidays by then! Your trees shouldn’t be baubled and tinselled yet, and there should be no figure in the crib—while our inside one is empty awaiting the Baby Jesus on Christmas night, our outside crib has Him there already for all the city to see. “Stop all this joyous stuff,” I hear the critics say, “It’s supposed to be ‘Little Lent’, a season of penitential preparation!”

So, who is right? Well, canon law says every Friday and the days of Lent are our penitential days (CIC can. 1250)—no mention of Advent. On the other hand, there’s lots of penitential purple in Advent, we don’t sing the Gloria, and Christmas Eve, especially, was traditionally a day of fast. So, which is it? Feast or fast, joy or penitence?

Anton Raphael Mengs, St John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness (1760s) Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Enter our Advent saint, John the Baptist (cf. Jn 1:6-8,19-28). His strange sartorial, culinary and hygiene sense make him an unlikely guest at Christmas parties. He for one seems to be more for fasting than feasting, a killjoy rather than a have-joy. His voice cries in the wilderness: “You’re all sinners! Return to God’s way ASAP. You urgently need Baptism, or the ‘second baptism’ of Confession. No time to waste!”

John’s style and subjects aren’t comfortable, but like the dentist they are necessary. Our culture offers only ephemeral pleasures, only faux happiness, and our nature is to grasp at these straws. But they don’t bring us true rapture, lasting joy.

If people are really to rejoice, John realises, they first have to recognise that there’s a problem: there are things around us or within us that inhibit our joy. If we never look at ourselves in the spiritual mirror or are never confronted by others, if we’re smug about our mediocrity or think we’re perfect, we won’t be open to that kind of change we call conversion. So, John dares to talk sin, as does the Church, unfashionable as that might be today, uncomfortable as it is in any age. Advent shines a light into the dark recesses of our hearts, upon the behaviours and vices, bad attitudes and influences, to which we are habituated, all the murky stuff we’d rather never came to light. It shines a light, not to embarrass us, but to liberate us. Only when we realise there are things about us that need to change, will we be open to conversion.

So, we accept we have our faults. But can’t we fix that for ourselves—with a self-help book, education or counselling, above all with enough will-power? Can’t we save ourselves?

“No,” says John, “you can’t lift yourself up by your own spiritual bootstraps. I can’t save you and you can’t save you. I’m no Moses, Elijah or Christ and neither are you. My baptism is only a sign of the deep cleansing to come. Only God can save you from what inhibits your true joy.

Now comes the Good News, the really Great News: the One I’m pointing to, He’s the one who can save you. Not only can He, He will save you if you let Him. And He’s on the way right now. His nameis Yeshua, Jesus, and it means: God saves.

John is not a killjoy after all. He’s a have-joy. He reminds us that we need to change but can’t do it on our own; that we need a Saviour and One is coming; that the Saviour is Jesus and through Him we can have a deep and abiding joy. But you have to want it. Next time you’re at Bondi, trying dragging someone out of the surf who doesn’t think they need your help; you won’t get a great reception! (Actually, better not to try.) God’s love isn’t forced on anyone; redemption isn’t rape. You must want it, yearn for it from deep in your heart. You must put your hand up as in the surf to indicate you need help.

So, John’s ministry wasn’t primarily about identifying our shortcomings, it was about wagging a finger at what we’ve got wrong. It was about awakening a hunger in us for something better, assuring us that we can be healed and elevated by God’s grace. If John talked sin, it wasn’t because he was down on humanity but because he was up on God. He knew it only sells people short to ignore bad behaviour and reward the mediocre, like some modern parenting theories or pedagogies. No, sin is the path to ruin; we must turn away from sin and be saved. Rose-tinted glasses don’t help us see better, and they won’t discourage the slaughter of innocents in the Holy Land and the rest. But John only points it out because the Church has great confidence in what human beings can be and do under God’s grace. Under-emphasising and over-emphasising sin both make salvation irrelevant and the Gospel incoherent: the incarnation is for the cross and the cross is for us; Christmas is for Easter and Easter is for our eternity in heaven.

The very first words of today’s Mass, taken from St Paul and sung in the Introit were “Gaudete! Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice! For the Lord is near.” (Phil 4:4-5) Our opening collect chimed in, asking God to help us attain joy and to celebrate salvation with glad rejoicing. Then we heard the text from Isaiah that Jesus used to explain Himself: “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me… to bring good news, to heal, liberate, proclaim… I exult for joy in the Lord, my spirit rejoices in my God.” (Isa 61:1-2,10-11) Next, we heard Mary’s Advent carol, the Magnificat, that explains her: “My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (Lk 1:46-54). And we had Paul’s antiphon: “Always be happy” (1Thes 5:16-24). As if a protest against the Advent purists, Gaudete anticipates the joy of Christmas—for all time is Christmas, Easter and Pentecost for us. And so our cathedral and its square are aglow with Christmas trees and cribs, lights and music. Even our clergy are dressed in Christmas wrapping today. All to say to you what the Advent purple, penance and preaching are for: that unexpected word from John, “Gaudete, rejoice, enjoy!”

Introduction to Mass of Gaudete Sunday (3rd Sunday of Advent) Year B – St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 17 December 2023

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral on this Gaudete Sunday when the Church anticipates Christmas by donning rose hues of joy. Amidst the tragedy of all that is going on in the Holy Land and other places, we dare hope and pray for better…

On Thursday last we launched Christmas at the Cathedral, our annual Christmas event showcasing the beauty of our faith through a mesmerising light and sound show projected upon the façade and forecourt, with choirs and concerts, market stalls, Christmas cribs, Christmas trees, and a wide-opened cathedral for people to explore, light a candle, and more. The programme will run each night from 5:30 to 10:30pm till Christmas, with the light show starting at 8:30 when it’s dark. Already I’ve had reports of thousands coming to imbibe the Christmas spirit, including a non-Catholic family who loved the light show, then brought their kids inside for their first time ever in a church, and then lit a candle to pray for their dog! Make sure you come one night and bring someone who might not otherwise celebrate Christmas: it’s a great event for drawing the community together in faith and friendship.  To everyone here on this Gaudete Sunday, I say, rejoice in the Lord always, rejoice for He is near at hand. Prepare yourself now by sweeping out the manger of our heart…