We are mid-way into our preparation for Christmas.
This Sunday, which is the third Sunday of Advent, is celebrated as Gaudete Sunday, which means a Sunday of rejoicing. To mark the change in sentiment, the liturgical color for this Sunday is pink, a symbol of joy. Indeed, all the three readings for this Sunday echo the theme of joy. In the first reading, the prophet says, “I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God, for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation, he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity, like a bridegroom wearing his wreath, like a bride adorned in her jewels.” In the responsorial psalm taken from the magnificat, Mary sang for joy. “My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour. He looks on his servant in her nothingness; henceforth all ages will call me blessed.” In the second reading, St Paul urges the Christians, “Be happy at all times.” Of course, the fullness of joy comes at Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Christ and most of all, the birth of Christ in our hearts.
However, this does not mean that from now until Christmas we live a life of sadness and emptiness. The Church invites us to anticipate the joy of Christmas here and now. Indeed, the truth of every great celebration is not just the day of the celebration itself, which of course is the climax. Rather, the joy of the celebration is dependent on two factors; the preparation before it and the day itself. Both are very much inter-related. The depth of the joy of the day of the celebration is very much dependent on how much we have prepared ourselves for it. On the other hand, in the very act of the preparation, we are already entering into the joy of the celebration.
This is true in a wedding, the symbol of joy as mentioned in today’s first reading. The climax of the celebration in a person’s life is his or her wedding. But it takes months, if not years, to come to this day. There are so many things to be done before the wedding day. The relationship between the couple must be intensified. Rough corners and disagreements must be sorted and ironed out. Reconciliation and forgiveness for each other’s negligence or wrongs should take place before the wedding so that the couple can start on a new chapter. Then there is the material preparation for the wedding, the dinner, the gowns, the invitations, etc. Most of all, the couple needs spiritual preparation for their wedding so that they know what they are entering into, their commitments, responsibilities and the important role that God and faith play in their relationship. Until all these have been done, the couple would not be ready to enter into marriage.
This is the real problem facing marriages today. Many are taking marriage lightly and that is why many marriages do not last. Today, there is a tendency to secularize the wedding and make it into a mundane and everyday affair. The solemnity and sacredness of the wedding is emptied from the celebration. Many think that the wedding is an entertainment. They marry in the sky, in the sea, underneath the water, on the cliff, etc. There is no seriousness in wanting the marriage to last. There is a lack of emotional and spiritual preparation of the couple for the wedding. Many get married when they are emotionally not ready, because they are still suffering the loss of a previous relationship and in their vacuum, they readily jump into another relationship. When marriages are not well prepared, we do not expect any solemn celebration. It is just another social gathering.
But if there is preparation, the marriage will become sacred and meaningful. The love that is celebrated on the wedding day will be intense. Most of all, the preparations for the wedding itself will bring great joy for the couple as they get ready for that big day together, sharing the joys, the difficulties and the partnership.
What is true for the celebration of marriage is true for all other celebrations, especially the feast of Christmas. The question is whether we are seriously preparing for the feast of Christmas. This is what the Church is asking of us through John the Baptist. The gospel tells us, “A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light.” It is the task of John the Baptist to do what the prophet Isaiah said, to be “a voice that cries in the wilderness: Make a straight way for the Lord.”
The work of John the Baptist was to prepare the people to meet the bridegroom. The Church is called the bride of God and Jesus is our bridegroom. St John calls himself the friend of the bridegroom. He said later, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:28-30)
How can we be prepared to meet the bridegroom? What kind of wedding preparations must we make to welcome the bridegroom on Christmas day? Firstly, we need to “make a straight way for the Lord.” This was what St Paul wrote to the Christians, “Hold on to what is good and avoid every form of evil. May the God of peace make you perfect and holy; and may you all be kept safe and blameless, spirit, soul and body, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. God has called you and he will not fail you.” If we want to enter into the joy of Christmas, and to welcome the birth of Jesus in our hearts, we must free our hearts from all sins, evil and selfishness. When we live a life of integrity, there will be peace and joy in our hearts. This is what the prophet says, “I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God, for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation, he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity, like a bridegroom wearing his wreath, like a bride adorned in her jewels.” Without living a life of integrity and honesty, our conscience will haunt us and take away whatever joy and peace the Lord wants to give to us at Christmas. If we have begun to walk a straight path, we are already entering into the joy of the Lord.
Secondly, we need to pray. St Paul said, “Be happy at all times; pray constantly.” There can be no peace in our hearts unless we make space for Him in our hearts and in our minds. The problem is that our hearts and minds are cluttered with worries, anxieties, unforgiveness, anger, resentment, envy and greed. We need to make time for prayer. Give yourself a break, a real holiday by spending a day or even a few days in solitude and prayer, whether in a retreat house or in the garden, or take a walk or sit before the Blessed Sacrament. We need to have some quiet time each day, especially when we come to the end of the year. We need to take stock of how we have lived our life this entire year. We need to rethink and reprioritize the way we live our lives. Unless we live purposeful and meaningful lives, we cannot find happiness and peace. Prayer gives us peace, direction, focus and most of all, surrender to the plan of God.
Thirdly, we must give thanks. St Paul says, “And for all things give thanks to God, because this is what God expects you to do in Christ Jesus.” Unless, we know how to thank God for the gifts which we have received, we will not be grateful to Him. Happiness in life is about thanksgiving. Those of us who are ingrates are always looking at what we do not have instead of what we already have. When we give thanks, we become grateful for what we have received and we are open to God who wants to give us more. When we are grateful, we also become generous ourselves. We begin to share with others what we have received. By sharing with others our joys, our resources, our wealth and our things, we in turn receive the joy of making a difference in the lives of others. We become happier when we act like God in being life-givers, bringers of joy and peace into the lives of others. That is why we invite people to give gifts to each other at Christmas, especially to the poor, so that we can partake in His joy of giving and loving.
Finally, we must ask for a renewal of the Holy Spirit in our lives. St John the Baptist said, “I baptise with water; but there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.” St Luke elaborated, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Lk 3:16) To ask for the Holy Spirit is to ask for a rebirth. The baptism of John the Baptist brings about the forgiveness of sins. Christian baptism brings about the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to speak about Christ being born again in our hearts.
This is what will enable us to be like John the Baptist, to be a witness to Christ. Like the Messiah prophesied in the first reading, we can also say, “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison; to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.” We must allow the Spirit and His gifts to be used for the service of God and our people. As we bring Christ to others, we reinforce the Christ in us. It is the Holy Spirit living in us that will ensure we bear fruits in our mission. “For as the earth makes fresh things grow, as a garden makes seeds spring up, so will the Lord make both integrity and praise spring up in the sight of the nations.”