Homily – Gaudete Sunday 2020

People holding lamps walking in the snow towards church

A few weeks ago, some of my friends asked me to remember and share with them my childhood memories of Advent and waiting for Christmas. So, after a moment of thought, I decided to tell them about one of the most beautiful Polish customs which is still practiced in many parishes, in the country where I was born, grew up and where I became a priest.

In almost all churches in Poland, priests celebrate “Advent Masses at dawn” in honour of Mary, Mother of God. Usually, they are held very early in the morning when it is still dark outside, sometimes at 7 or even at 6 am. People gather in their parish churches bringing with them lit lanterns, because when Mass begins all the lights in the church are turned off, it is absolutely dark there. All lights are only turned on when the whole community begins to sing or simply say the hymn: “Glory to God in the highest”. And it is actually the only Advent Mass where we can sing this very joyful hymn. Moreover, this is the only Mass in Advent where priests can use – instead of purple – white vestments, and the whole mass has a joyful atmosphere of anticipation and longing for the coming of the Lord.

After the end of Mass – in many parishes – there is another very interesting and very sweet Advent custom. Well, when the Mass is finished, all the children and their parents are invited to breakfast with hot chocolate, which is prepared for them in the parish hall. After a long breakfast in a friendly and joyful atmosphere, children go to their schools carrying their lanterns, which they are very proud of.

This is one of my first recollections when I remember Advent, my childhood and my joyful preparations for Christmas with my family and friends. And although – as I remember – it was not easy to get up at 5 or 6 in the morning when it was cold or snowing outside, the atmosphere of this special Advent Mass at dawn gave me and my friends much more satisfaction and joy than sleeping longer in a warm bed.

As we heard at the beginning of Mass, today’s Sunday – the third Sunday of Advent – is called Gaudete Sunday or Sunday of joy. All the readings invite us to discover and experience true joy at the coming of the Lord, which seems to be getting closer to us. The prophet Isaiah says to us: I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God. Saint Paul in the second reading instead of encouraging us, he seems to command us to be happy by saying: Be happy at all times; pray constantly; and for all things give thanks to God.

Today’s Gospel tells us about John the Baptist, the great prophet of Advent who helps us understand what the essence of true joy is, and what we need to do to experience it fully. I think that – in this particular gospel for the third Sunday of Advent – Saint John can be a great example of humility for us. We just heard about how the priests and the Levites asked him about his identity: Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? What have you to say about yourself?

I think that humility – that is accepting the truth about who we really are – is the first and fundamental condition that must be met in order for us to achieve and experience true joy. And I think that today each of us could ask ourselves the same question that John was asked: Who am I? What I have to say about myself? Can I say – like John in today’s gospel – that I am only an ordinary human being who knows my limitations and my place in the society and community where I live? I am not a prophet; I am not the best and the most intelligent superhero and I am not an expert in all areas of life.

“The one who is coming after me… I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap”. This is the second lesson that John the Baptist gives us today. In order to be happy and to experience the true joy of life, each of us should recognize God as someone much greater than ourselves. Maybe we find it difficult at times. Maybe we treat God differently than we should and differently than he deserves to be treated. Maybe we sometimes treat him as our equal colleague who should be at our disposal 24 hours a day, and if he does not meet our expectations, we take offense and turn away from him. Maybe sometimes we get the impression that by coming to church we are doing him a great favour, for which he should repay us exactly as we want. Today – just two weeks before Christmas – John the Baptist reminds us of two basic truths about God and about ourselves. He teaches us how to be humble and how to achieve and experience the true joy of our lives.

Let us finish our reflection with the prayer we heard at the beginning of this Mass.

O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing. Amen.

Fr Gregory