Gaudete, Rejoice, Joy

An interesting encounter with John the Baptist here in the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel. 

He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light . . . [1]

This is the testimony given by John when the leaders of the Temple sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

He goes on to deny that he is not Elijah, and he is not Moses.

Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John quotes Isaiah, that passage we heard last week about a voice crying in the wilderness. 

Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet? And he responds with, “I baptize you with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”[2]

What a witness! “I’m not anybody important. But there’s someone coming; he’s standing among us now, but I’m not saying who he is.” 

This is the season in the northern hemisphere where we wait for light. And now we wait not only for light, but for clarity about so many concerns about the world: Russia and Ukraine, Israel and the Palestinians, the environment, numerous other places around the world where people take second place to power, a Congress devoted more to breaking government than doing the work of the people—just to name a few. It’s also a time for the darkness of grief. Grieving the loss of loved ones and feeling blue over facing the holidays without them. Waiting is a daily theme in our lives—waiting for clarity, for answers, for relief.

We light the lights on our lawns, in our homes – longing for that which doesn’t exist yet. Advent: waiting for something or someone to come. The time is pregnant with possibility . . . possibility that is not yet. 

So here’s John, the perfect symbol for our time, bearing witness . . . to what, to whom? I’m not the one. He is coming, maybe even among you now, but we’re here – anxious, hopeful, sometimes not sure what to think or feel or do. What to do?

John, under intense questioning, replied, “I don’t know.”

The Biblical authors often speak of darkness as a place without God. Barbara Brown Taylor reflected on this in an article in the Christian Century, titled Redeeming Darkness.[3]

Biblically speaking, darkness is the pits. In the first testament, light stands for life and darkness for death. Sheol is dark as hell. When God is angry with people, they are plunged into darkness. Locusts darken the land. People grope in the dark without light, for the day of the Lord is darkness and not light.

In the second testament, light stands for knowledge and darkness for ignorance. When the true light comes into the world, the world does not know him. He has come so that everyone who believes in him should not remain in the darkness, but they love darkness more than light. On the day he dies, darkness descends on the land from noon until three. First John sums it up: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”[4]

Or in the vernacular of a Chattahoochee Baptist Church sign . . . “If you cut God’s light off, you’ll be sitting in the dark with the devil.”

That strikes me as a problematic teaching here in the midst of Advent, the church season of deepening darkness, when Christians are asked to remember that we measure time differently from the dominant culture in which we live. We begin our year when the days are getting darker, not lighter. We count sunset as the beginning of a new day. Regardless of how things may appear to our naked eyes, we trust that the seeds of light are planted in darkness, where they sprout and grow, we don’t know how. The darkness is necessary to new life, even when it’s uncomfortable and goes on too long.

Ask any expectant mother if she wants her baby to come early and she’ll say no, she does not. As badly as her back hurts, as long as it’s been since she has seen her toes, she is willing to wait because the baby isn’t ready yet. The eyelashes are ready but not the fingernails. The kidneys are ready but not the lungs. There ‘s still more time to do in the dusky womb, where the baby’s growing like a seed in the dark.

The church waits like this during Advent—mulishly refusing to sing the songs pouring from loudspeakers at every shopping mall, stubbornly counting the days, puritanically declining to open any presents—because the baby isn’t ready yet, which means we’re not ready either. We have some time in the dark left to go. 

There’s one word for darkness in the Bible that stands out from the rest. It shows up in the book of Exodus at the foot of Mount Sinai, right after God has delivered (Commandments) to the people: “Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”[5]

This is araphel, my concordance says, the thick darkness that indicates God’s presence as surely as the brightness of God’s glory—something God later clarifies through the prophet Isaiah, in case anyone missed it earlier. “I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.”[6]

Here’s a helpful reminder to all who fear the dark. Darkness doesn’t come from a different place than light; it’s not presided over by a different God. 

Even in the dark, the seed sprouts and grows—we do not know how—while God goes on giving birth to the truly human in Christ and in us.

Or ponder these words of wisdom from Arlo Guthrie: “You can’t have a light without a dark to put it in.” 

This Thursday, December 21, will be the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. But it marks the moment when every day after will be lighter, brighter, longer. Joy! 

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent in the liturgical calendar of Western Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican CommunionLutheran Churches, and other mainline Protestant churches.  

The day takes its name from the Latin word Gaudete (“Rejoice”), the first word of the ancient introit of this day’s worship: 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.

We light the joy candle—the pink one in the Advent wreath. We wear rose colored vestments and altar hangings. All to affirm that God is with us, even in the darkest moments. Gaudete: rejoice: joy.

Amen.


[1] John 1:6-8

[2] see John 1: 19-28

[3] Christian Century, November 29, 2011, p. 37

[4] I John 1:5

[5] Exodus 20:21

[6] Isaiah 45:6-7

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