REJOICE ALWAYS – Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

December 17, 2023

Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54 (Is 61:10b)
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

You’ve probably come across this song several times in the last week or two: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” We hear a lot about the “joy of the season,” but we know that real, profound joy is far more elusive than songs, movies, and sales promotions would lead us to believe.

Joy is a prominent theme in the Scripture readings for this Third Sunday of Advent, also known to many western Christians as Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday. Rejoicing may sound like a welcome break for people who have become weary from preparations, parties, and living up to expectations, but today’s biblical texts present joy as something far deeper than a seasonal phenomenon or a temporary relief.

In today’s Epistle reading from the First Letter to the Thessalonians, regarded by the vast majority of biblical scholars as the oldest writing in the entire New Testament, we hear the exhortation from Paul himself: “Rejoice always.” Paul speaks here of joy not as a break from the humdrum, but rather as a way of life. Rejoice always, he tells us—not on occasion, not just at Christmas, not only on Gaudete Sunday. We are to rejoice at every moment and in every situation.

Paul links rejoicing with two other practices—praying and giving thanks. Along with being joyful, he instructs the Thessalonians (and us) to “pray without ceasing” and to “give thanks in all circumstances.” He advocates a life of nonstop rejoicing, praying, and thanking as we “hold fast to what is good” and “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:21-22).

How can we rejoice, pray, and give thanks without ceasing? That can only happen if we are attentive to the ever-present sustaining presence of God, even in times of disappointment or adversity. As we wait for the coming of Christ, we are called to be alert to the signs that God is nurturing and supporting us each day. We can heed the call to “be joyful” even in sorrow and pain because of our hope in the God whose is faithful to the promises.

If we’re paying attention, we can take notice of signs that the Holy One is present in the world and acting with power right now. The Spirit of God empowers people of good will today to carry out the mission that the prophet speaks of in today’s Hebrew Scripture reading and that Jesus himself embraced: “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Is 61:1-2). Even as wars rage and injustice is inflicted on the innocent, there is cause for rejoicing in works of mercy, healing, and liberation that point to the advent of God’s reign.

We rejoice because God’s coming is not merely a hoped-for future event; the Holy One is already among us. The words of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading are intended not only for his original audience but also for us: “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (Jn 1:26). Christ is among us, but we may fail to recognize him at times. Can we open the eyes of our hearts and rejoice in the one who is present with us even now as a companion on our life’s journey? As we allow ourselves to be transformed by that awareness and as we find joy in the divine presence with us now, we can also take up our share in proclaiming good news to others.

A Hymn for Today: “My heart sings out”

Pastor, scholar, and hymnwriter Ruth Duck, FHS, has composed a paraphrase of the Magnificat that expresses joy in the God who is present with grace for “those who seek their Maker’s will” and with justice for the poor and hungry. The recently published ecumenical African American hymnal, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, pairs Duck’s text with the familiar tune CAROL, most often associated with “It came upon a midnight clear,” a hymn for the Christmas season that expresses a strong social justice message.

My heart sings out with joyful praise
To God who raises me,
Who came to me when I was low
And changed my destiny.
The Holy One, the Living God,
Is always full of grace
To those who seek their Maker’s will
In ev’ry time and place.

The arm of God is strong and just
To scatter all the proud.
The tyrants tumble from their thrones
And vanish like a cloud.
The hungry all are satisfied,
The rich are sent away.
The poor on earth who suffer long
Will welcome God’s new day.

The promise made in ages past
At last has come to be,
For God has come in pow’r to save,
To set all people free.
Rdmemb’ring those who wait to see
Salvation’s dawning day,
Our Savior comes to all who weep
To wipe their tears away.

Text: Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55; Ruth Duck, b. 1947. © 1992, GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.

Image Credit: Orans figures with arms in praise, panel from an early Christian Coptic Church in Bawit, Egypt, 5th-6th cent., Louvre, Paris

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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