Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philipians 4:4-7)

     “Keep your eye on the ball” is a well-known sports expression.  It finds its origin in baseball, where keeping your focus on that little horsehide-covered sphere is essential not only to getting on base, but also to successfully fielding your position.  If you get distracted by something happening in the stands, or by an interesting looking bird flying by, the next thing to fly by might be a soft line drive just over your head.  It could cost your team the game . . . and cost you a place in the starting lineup.  The expression has come to take on a wider meaning, as evocative images frequently do.  We commonly use it today in any situation in which we are reminding someone to focus on the essentials and not get distracted.

photo by Nick Wass/Associated Press

     We can think of the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, as serving a similar purpose. At the midpoint of the season of Advent, a season of prayerful preparation and penance, the Church asks us to look up and focus on the goal of that penance and preparation: we need to be ready when Jesus Christ breaks into our world.  

     The immediate focus of our observance of Advent is the coming celebration of the Nativity, when Jesus came into our world as a little human baby two thousand years ago.  Even more than old baseball expressions, however, the truths of the Faith are true in a number of ways, and on numerous levels.  As I observed in my 1st Sunday of Advent post, we are using this season to ready ourselves not only to welcome the Christ Child on Christmas, to also to receive him worthily in Holy Communion, and to face him as our Eternal Judge at the end of time.       
     We can see the different layers of meaning in the Mass readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.   In the second reading (which introduces this discussion, above) St. Paul urges the Christians at Philippi to “Rejoice!” (Gaudete in Latin, from which this Sunday derives its traditional name). And what is the cause of this rejoicing? If we back up a couple sentences we read:

But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.  (Philipians 3:20-21)

When we look at the larger context of the passage, we can see that the Apostle’s primary focus here is the final coming of Jesus. He tells us that we should rejoice because we are going to join our Lord in Heaven – provided, that is, that we “hold true to what we have attained.” (Philipians 3:16)

The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?” (Luke 3:10)

 John the Baptist by Mattia Preti, 1665

In other words, the Good News is good news indeed, but it is not quite a free pass.  We have a part we need to play beyond simply waiting for our Savior.  Today’s Gospel reading spells it out even more clearly.  Here see John the Baptist, who is himself laying the groundwork for Jesus to begin his public ministry (yet another “advent” of the Christ).  People are asking the Baptist what they what they need to do to be saved:

The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)

If it’s not clear already that John is not preparing the way for a Savior offering cheap grace, the rest of the passage removes any doubt:

Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:10-14)

     The image of Christ the Judge vigorously clearing the threshing floor with his winnowing fan is certainly good news is you’re among the wheat; if you’re with the chaff, not so much.

    

Detail from The Last Judgment, by Peter Paul Rubens 1614-1617

     And yet this is the same Jesus whom we celebrate as an innocent Babe lying in a manger; that infant resting on the crossed trusses of a wooden trough will later hang on the wooden Cross’s rough beams. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball.  We are preparing (as we should be) to adore that innocent Babe who came into the world to offer Salvation, but the story doesn’t end in Bethlehem: Salvation can only come through the Cross.


Deus homo factus est
Natura Mirante,
Mundus renovatus est
A Christo regnante!

Gaudete, gaudete!  Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!

Feature image top of page: Annunciation to the Shepherds, by Govert Teuniszoon Flinck, 1639 

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