As most of you who read this blog already know, Advent is a penitential season – a period of time with a special spiritual focus upon dealing with our sins, both recognizing them and fighting against them by practicing good deeds. Back in the 400’s, Advent was a 40-day fast much like Lent, which is quite the long period of time. As a result, a day was allotted approximately half-way through the season as a bit of break. In Lent, that day is Laetare Sunday, in Advent that day is Gaudete Sunday. Now that Lent is only four weeks long, Gaudete Sunday falls on Sunday #3.
On these relief days amidst the fasts, the general tenor of the season remains, but certain aspects of the Sunday worship are perked up somewhat. In the old days, playing the organ and displaying flowers were disallowed during penitential season, but allowed on these mid-way days. The vestments and other trimmings around the altar change from purple to rose. That’s why on traditional advent wreaths today there are three purple candles and one ‘pink’ candle – the ‘pink’ is actually ‘rose,’ signifying the increased festivity on that particular day.
Gaudete Sunday got its name from the traditional introit in the Roman Mass for that day:
Gaudete, gaudete, Christus est natus ex Maria Virgine, gaudete!
(Rejoice, rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!)
The readings in liturgical churches for this day all contribute to this theme of joyful anticipation of the return of Christ (rather then penitential angle of preparation for the return of Christ).
Isaiah is prophesying about “restoration blessings” – what life will be like when the Messiah arrives and puts everything to right. Note especially the “garment of praise” in v3: switching the clerical vestments from penitential purple to festive rose is actually a biblical image! Not that this verse is a prooftext for this tradition, but this tradition is in the same vein as the text’s imagery.
This Psalm is an expression of praise, anticipating what life will be like when the Messiah comes.
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
The epistle reading combines a Gaudete-Sunday-style exhortation to rejoice with an Advent-style exhortation to prepare for Christ’s return. Look for more on this in an upcoming post, as I’ll be preaching on this passage in the morning.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Here, John the Baptizer warns his hearers that the Messiah may already be in their midst, and they just don’t know it yet. The return of Christ won’t be so subtle, but there remains a key similarity: his return is immanent; it could be at any time.
So the Advent theme of preparation for the 1st & 2nd advents of Christ takes on here a greater sense of immediacy as well as excitement. The idea of active preparation remains – we’re not to sit idly watching the clocks – but we take a day to remember that this is a matter of joy, and something to be celebrated.