Eucharist Sermon - 13 December 2020

The Third Sunday of Advent
The Revd Canon Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-end; John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Rejoice in the Lord always

+ John the Baptist said, ‘Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.’ (John 1, 26-27)

Were you surprised by the introit with which this morning’s service began? Not only that there was an introit at all (for this is not our normal custom). But did its words, ‘Gaudete’; (rejoice) surprise you? They come from familiar verses from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand.’ Perhaps you are wondering whether we should be rejoicing on the third Sunday of this penitential season of Advent. Is that not inappropriate, at odds with the message of John the Baptist, the one crying out in the wilderness. He came, as St John the evangelist told us, to testify to the light, the light that the darkness did not overcome.

Traditionally, this Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday after that introit. Today stands in the middle of this season and functions in a similar way to the Sunday of mid-Lent, Laetare. In some churches today the Advent purple of altar frontal and priests’ vestments and stoles will have been replaced by a delicate rose pink. I turn wistfully to my colleagues on Chapter, regretting that when Canon Tilby overhauled our vestments and commissioned a number of new sets from liturgical outfitters, she did not get as far as ordering us a pink set.

You will have noticed, however, that in the Advent wreath which Oscar and his daddy lit for us this morning, the third candle is not purple like the rest, but pink. Not, as one might frivolously suggest, because we have run out of purple candles, but as a sign of gladness on this day. While purple has been the liturgical colour for Advent and Lent in the Catholic church since the Counter Reformation, and has thus acquired an association with penitence, the relaxation of that more austere colour today to rose pink is intended to symbolise our delight at the nearness of the Lord’s coming.

The keeping of Advent, the weeks leading up to the feast of the Nativity, as a distinct liturgical season developed surprisingly slowly in the Early Church. Its origins remain contested and, notably, it is not (and never was) observed liturgically in the Eastern churches, although they do mark the Sunday before Christmas with special provisions. Since Christmas itself did not become a fixed feast until the second half of the fourth century, the invention of a period of preparation for the Lord’s coming, Advent, cannot date from any earlier than this. The Spanish and Gallican churches seem to have observed a fast before Christmas, originally for the six weeks following the feast of St Martin of Tours (11 November). The church in Rome did not treat the time before Christmas as a period of fasting, however, and gradually reduced the six Advent Sundays of the Gallican cycle first to five, and then to four.

Whether four or five Sundays were marked in Advent, the third marks the middle of the season and provides an occasion for relaxing some of the austerity of its provisions. Throughout Advent, we focus on our Lord’s second coming, but today we express our gladness at the imminence of that coming more joyfully. We acclaim not only the Lord who is to come, but we worship ‘the Lord who is now near at hand’. If, indeed, the Lord is near, we have every reason to be joyful, singing ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’.

Joy runs as a common thread through this morning’s readings. Isaiah rejoiced in the Lord and exulted in God; he delighted in the response of the oppressed, the captive and the bereaved to whom he was bringing the good news. He knew that righteousness and praise would spring up over all the earth, because the full nature and glory of God were being revealed. Even in the midst of sadness (of oppression, poverty, sickness and bereavement), joy can be present. For the revelation of God’s glory in the incarnate Christ reveals to each of us the knowledge – the profound certainty – that we are unconditionally loved exactly as we are for being the people who we are. Nothing in all creation can separate us from that love in Christ. Today’s Epistle – which we did not hear – from St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians conveys this same joy, for it, too, begins with the word ‘Rejoice’. To Paul, joy is the gift of the unquenchable Spirit, which connects Christians to the life of God offered in Christ Jesus; it is the basis of our faithfulness to God. To fulfil God’s law, we therefore need to rejoice at what he has done and be thankful. Yet in our Gospel, the words of St. John Baptist warned us that the Lamb of God is even now in our midst, although we appear to know Him not.

We see the Baptiser here in rather different guise from last Sunday, when we encountered the wild man of the desert, wearing camel’s hair and proclaiming a baptism of repentance (Mark 1: 1-8). In both accounts, however, John quoted the same passage from Isaiah. Here the baptiser appears full of confidence. Confidence about who he is, and the nature of the task laid upon him, but also about who he is not. Not the Messiah, Elijah or the Prophet, he knows that he is the one who was foretold, the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And he understands and accepts that his role as herald will only be brief, before he is eclipsed. It falls to him to reveal ‘the one who is coming after me’ (one to whom he knows himself to be greatly inferior). John is filled with joy in the knowledge that the one who is coming after him is already there in their midst: ‘Among you stands one whom you do not know’.

John the Baptist rejoiced to tell of the coming of Christ; he testified to the light – the word made flesh – the true light which enlightens everyone (John 1. 9). He delighted to know that he stood already in His presence. Listening to John’s teaching, we should also follow him in his joy. On this Sunday in the middle of Advent, instead of fretting about how much we still have to do before Christmas (or wishing that the days would hasten even faster to the end of this awful year), let us take the opportunity to pause and articulate our own joy and gladness in the Redemption promised in Christ Jesus: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice … for the Lord is near at hand’.

Merciful God
your word spoken by the prophets,
restores your people’s life and hope.
Fill our hearts with the joy of your saving grace,
that we may hold fast to your great goodness
And in our lives proclaim your saving power in all the world. AMEN