In the Catholic Advent cycle, today is the “pink candle” Sunday, where in preparation for Christ’s coming we rejoice rather than repent. In fact, Gaudete is Latin for Rejoice and comes from Phillipians 4:4-5:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.
5 Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.
In the Catholic tradition, Gaudete Sunday follows the typical parameters of service, with two readings (Isaiah and James, both focusing on the nearness of the messiah who comes with healing in the wings) and a Gospel reading. The Gospel reading is Matthew 11:2-11, which features Christ’s praise of John the Baptist as more than a prophet, but also something else.
In these verses, John is in prison, and is very aware that he is about to be killed. He calls out to Jesus “Art thou the Christ or do we wait for another?” Or in other words, John, in his moment of darkness and need, calls out to Christ in doubt and uncertainty. We can not be certain if this is because John’s expectation of the Messiah was that he would be a conqueror sent by God who came to overthrow those people who now held John captive or if John merely were asking for assurance that all his suffering was not in vain. In either case, here is John, who was “more than a prophet” but who is in many ways “the prophet”, having weakness and doubt. Christ sends assurance to John and asks him to “take no offense in me”, but does not release him from his allotted punishment, as we all know. John dies, his head put on a platter, and Christ marches forward toward Calvary and beyond.
I find it very interesting that in this service of rejoicing at the nearness of Christ, the central story is one of the greatest of all people doubting and Christ pleading that he not take offense in him. In many ways, on the Christian path, our expectations of God and the way things should be are set, either by our reasoning or traditions, and can become stumbling blocks to us. In my life as a member of the Church I have seen many struggle. Most recently, a newly baptized couple read headlines about women being denied access to the priesthood session and haven’t been back to church since. Before that, I saw a couple struggle with how the church spends money on temples instead of caring for the poor and needy. I have known many who struggle with God’s allowance of Polygamy and the long period when Blacks were denied the priesthood. I have also struggled with all these things.
To these issues, I think Gaudete Sunday is a response. Christ, in the moment asks our forgiveness telling us we are blessed if we take no offense. If the greatest prophet of all could struggle, and later on the Cross, Christ could struggle (eloi lama sabacthanai), so must we struggle. Life paints an unexpected and confusing picture of God, which is ever changing and breaking the rules we try to contain it in. It is faith and faith only which allows us to have hope for the end to be good from where we stand, though all of our expectations of the end and our understandings of the now are tested. Even though we see through a glass darkly, We can still stand together as one, and thank God for the nearness of the Lord and his goodness. We can rejoice.