The Third Sunday of Advent
First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-18
Responsorial Psalm: Isaiah 12:2-6
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:4-7
Gospel: According to St. Luke 3:10-18
This Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, is traditionally known as Gaudete [Gow-day-tay] Sunday. The Latin word Gaudete means “Rejoice” and this Sunday is the counterpart to Laetare [Lay-ta-ray] (also “Rejoice”) Sunday in Lent, the mid-point of that penitential season. Many centuries ago Advent was a 40-day season of penance meant to mirror Lent, and when it was shortened the 3rd Sunday remained as Gaudete Sunday.
The color of the day is rose, rather than the usual violet that is most commonly used during a penitential season like Advent or Lent. Thus the vestments to be worn and the Advent candle to be lit are both rose, symbolic of joy in the Church’s colors scheme.
The readings are chosen to fit this theme, and are different from what one might expect from a liturgical season centered on waiting and keeping watch. This week the first and second readings, as well as the responsorial psalm (which is actually from Isaiah and not the Psalms), all focus on joy and gladness.
This fits in well with our natural tendency to see Advent as a joyful and festive season rather than a solemn time of penance. In the 16th century a Christmas hymn was written around this theme and entitled, fittingly, “Gaudete.”
“Gaudete, Gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria Virgine, gaudete!”
“Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!”
This first line sets the stage for the song’s joyful lyrics about the time of grace being upon us and the world being renewed. It is understandable that the King’s Singers at the University of Cambridge as well as the Irish a cappella group Anuna would record this song; but in 1972, seemingly out of the blue, the British folk-rock band Steeleye Span, fueled by the angelic voice of Maddy Prior, had a top 15 hit single of their rendition of “Gaudete.”
All of these versions carry with them the true feeling of the season and help us to remember that the Incarnation, God becoming human, is the primary world-changing event in all of history. But on top of that, the Steeleye Span version reminds us that for Catholics the Incarnation makes the world and all that is in it the sacrament of Christ, and it places all of culture – including music – under the mantle of God’s grace.
The fans of Steeleye Span were members of a generation that saw organized religion as a part of the Establishment - especially in the U.K. where the Anglican Church literally was the Establishment - and therefore wanted nothing to do with it. Yet, because we all are “hard wired” for truth, goodness, and especially beauty, these rebellious youth found a deep resonance with the Steeleye Span rendition of this ancient song of joy. In searching for answers to the mysteries of life these young people came face to face with the Mystery of the Incarnation.
A hymn that sprang from the culture of Catholic Europe becoming a huge hit song at the height of the social unrest of the late 60s and early 70s is a sign of hope that such events are still happening today and will continue to happen until the end of time. Like a bolt of lightning, that improbable hit song was a sign that the human race, despite all of its many flaws and millions of sinners, is still one that is open to a world that is, in the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins, “charged with the grandeur of God.”