3rd Sunday of Advent – The Joy of God’s Presence

Juan Diego and His Tilma Showing Our Lady of Guadeloupe
Lawrence OP | Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Third Sunday of Advent
St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4:4–7
December 12, 2021

Today is Gaudete Sunday. This means rejoice and is reflected in the prayers and readings of the day. To name just a few. The opening prayer encourages us to await the Lord’s birth:

to attain the joys of so great a salvation
and to celebrate them always
with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.

The first line of the first reading in today’s Mass from Zephaniah reads:

Shout for Joy, O daughter Zion;
Sing joyfully O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!

The psalm refrain from Isaiah is “Shout with exaltation , O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

The clearest sign of this is however in the reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We read this letter last week and saw that Paul was happy with this community. Indeed, he is using a literary form called “Letters of Friendship”. This did not mean that everything was perfect and indeed the beauty of today’s passage is how true reconciliation can attain joy.

To understand this however, we must look at the passage before the one we read today:

.. urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche
to come to a mutual understanding in the Lord.
Yes, and I ask you also, my true yokemate, to help them,
for they have struggled at my side in promoting the gospel,
along with Clement and my other co-workers,
whose names are in the book of life.

(Php 4:2–3)

A more literal translation for “come to a mutual understanding” would be “think the same things in the Lord”. Earlier in the letter Paul has exhorted the Philippians to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.” (Php 2:2). A few verses after this he includes the great hymn to “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus.” Php 2:5) The great hymn to humility follows this reminding all that if Jesus did not grasp on to his divinity, then how can we call ourselves his disciples and seek pride of place?

We do not know who Paul’s yokemate is here but he or she is asked to assist in Euodia and Syntyche reconciling. Note as well that each of them is acknowledged as struggling with Paul to promote the Gospel and that because of this their names are written in “the book of life,” receive the ultimate reward.

It is in this process that they will find not only reconciliation but joy.

He first tells them to rejoice but then how to:

Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.

(Php 4:4–5)

The word that is used for kindness (epieikes) means not to insist on every right and privilege to the letter of the law or custom. It is being yielding, gentle, courteous, and tolerant. This is precisely what Jesus shows in the great hymn that we have seen before. This humble kindness will be needed by Euodia and Syntyche. Paul does not mention what this dispute is about. It could be church related or not but whatever its cause humility will be needed for reconciliation.

We can find a hint of Psalm 145 in Paul’s statement that the Lord is near

The LORD is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
he also hears their cry, and saves them.

(Psalm 145:18–19)

This is intentionally ambiguous. It most directly means that the Lord is close to us and hears us when we call him. We must however do so as one who “fears” him, stands before him in awe and supplication. It may also be a reminder that the Lord will return, and we must act in a way the acknowledges this reality.

The process of reconciliation is not easy and may cause anxiety but note that Paul’s teaching is that anxiety can be overcome only by prayer:

Have no anxiety at all,
but in everything, by prayer and petition,
with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.

(Php 4:6)

The prayer he urges begins with humility: we petition, ask God for what we want and with thanksgiving, gratitude that he will listen to us. This prayer alone will bring results. In this case reconciliation between two Christians.

The process will be completed when there is peace.

Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

(Php 4:7)

This is the only time that the expression peace of God appears in the New Testament. Yet as always when peace is mentioned in the Bible it is more than the mere absence of conflict but full harmony. In the synoptic gospels it is the kingdom: harmony between God and humanity, humanity ourselves, and humanity and nature.

This is not a product of human reasoning or action but a gift from God. This surpasses all understanding; it rises above and is superior to mere human intelligence.

This must be guarded and indeed this word is military in origin. It means a garrison which is keeping watch or guard over something valuable. Heart means the core of a person, his or her very being, mind, of course the ability to reason. Note however it is God who will keep our minds and hearts with him.

Reconciliation especially as it usually requires us to ask forgiveness is rarely a pleasant thing, but we are told by Paul today that it will bring us closer to Jesus and consequently we will know when it has been achieved by joy.

Gaudete Sunday is the link between early and late Advent and the reminder that joy is defined by contact with God not what gives earthly pleasure. We can experience this celebrating the birth of Jesus or awaiting his return. Indeed, we know that we are celebrating Advent and Christmas correctly when we experience the joy of God’s presence. With all the temptations around us to lapse into a consumerist frenzy, it is a wonderful time to remember that we were made for joy and should accept no substitutes.