‘Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, rejoice!’ (Philippians 4.4). This is the opening refrain or introit which traditionally begins the liturgy of the Third Sunday of Advent. Such joy is perhaps a strange sentiment to evoke in the midst of what is a penitential season, but it in many way defines this week, and this Sunday is often known as Gaudete Sunday from that opening word of the introit: Rejoice!
It can be difficult for the church to know how to relate to the world at this time of year. If we let ourselves be swept up in the festivities of Christmas too early, we risk losing the anticipation, the expectancy, the longing, the hope that comes from keeping a holy Advent. But neither do we want to spurn the efforts of those who celebrate with joy the coming of the light that shines in the darkness. So it is timely to reflect on joy this week.
Some churches use a distinct liturgical colour on Gaudete Sunday, or light an Advent Candle, which instead of the violet or purple of the season is a lighter rose or pink. I like to think of this not as a different colour, but as a different shade of the same colour. We haven’t left behind the penitential, preparatory character of Advent, but are reminding ourselves that penitence and preparation need not be joyless. After all, we are preparing ourselves to receive again the love of Christ into our hearts. We are preparing to celebrate that God took flesh and shared our human nature. We are preparing to rejoice in the good news that caused angels to sing and shepherds to wonder.
Perhaps this is a useful reflection at this time of year: go about your preparations, yes, and do so with joy. Do not let the rigours of preparing for such a feast overwhelm you, such that there is no joy in your heart.
The image of the rose-coloured lilies reflects this anticipatory joy. Some of the flowers are open and we can see the beauty of their colour; but some are still waiting to reveal themselves. The lily is a flower often associated with Mary and with the story of the annunciation: the angel’s tidings of joy. On this, the Venerable Bede said that the white petals of the lily signified Mary’s purity, while the golden anthers within signified the glowing light that she bore.
By Mary’s purity, perhaps we might understand the singleness of her desire for the God whom she nurtured in her womb and cradled in her arms. It is useful to bear that in mind when reflecting on the joy of this season of preparation: does our rejoicing lead us deeper into the mystery of Christ’s incarnation? Do our preparations create in us a greater desire for God? May we rejoice in the coming of our Saviour, and may we long to his glory in all the world.