This is Good News?

The Third Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-7
Isaiah 12:2-6
Luke 3:7-18

Gaudete in domini semper.

These words from this week’s lectionary epistle are also the text of the introit of the mass for the third Sunday of Advent. Thus on Gaudete Sunday, when Advent’s sober mood is broken a little and the pink candle on the wreath is lit, we remember that we are invited to “rejoice in the Lord always.”

These words are so familiar that perhaps we have lost the sense of irony in saying or singing them during a season and on a day when much of what we recall is rooted in scandal and gloom: the disgrace of pregnancy outside of wedlock in a strict patriarchal culture and John the Baptizer’s wide-eyed, fiery condemnations.

James Wright‘s poem, “Trouble,” evokes the first (while it also subverts, as do the gospel accounts of Mary, the social norms surrounding teenage motherhood) :

Leering across Pearl Street,
Crum Anderson yipped:
“Hey Pugh!
I see your sister
Been rid bareback.
She swallow a watermelon?
Fred Gordon! Fred Gordon! Fred Gordon!”
“Wayya mean? She can get fat, can’t she?”

Fat? Willow and lonesome Roberta, running
Alone down Pearl Street in the rain the last time
I ever saw her, smiling a smile
Crum Anderson will never know,
Wondering at her body.

Sixteen years, and
All that time she thought she was nothing
But skin and bones.

And in the gospel reading, the end of John’s fevered rant “(the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”) is followed by St. Luke’s own playful, ironic summation: “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

This is good news?

Here we see that Advent itself is a season of reversals (the rough places made plain)–a season of overturning expectations, upsetting settled norms, the undoing of social propriety (in Mary’s drama) and religious piety (in John the Baptist’s).

With Zephaniah the (Advent only) prophet and with Isaiah we rejoice in such reversals–God’s and our own:

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.

The challenge of course is to live into and out of this great reversal (which is another way of saying “the Kingdom of God”). Advent portends it, Christmas reveals it, and Easter–the high, holy day at the conclusion of this surprising, playful, ironic story–is the end (and in another great reversal, the beginning) of our eternal song: “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

May Gaudete Sunday give us a glimpse of the joy to come.

click here for a previous bLOGOS reflection on these texts

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