Advent is a season of penance in preparation for the Lord’s coming; not the first coming which we celebrate on Christmas Day (his birthday), but the second coming at an unknown time. Thus, the readings during this period reference the coming of Christ in glory (“Stay Awake!”) and call for repentance in preparation.
In Australia, where Advent coincides with the end of the school year and the beginning of a long Summer vacation, it’s quite a challenge to maintain a spiritual disposition of repentance. Graduations, end-of-year celebrations and commercial marketing tempt us into festive indulgence well ahead of the Christmas season.
It is an annual battle with busyness for us. Just as we desire to spiritually slow down to evaluate our priorities for the year ahead, we are pushed into overdrive with office parties, work deadlines and prepping for the shut-down period over Summer.
The theme of the third Sunday of Advent is joy. Called ‘Gaudete Sunday’, which is Latin for ‘Rejoice’, it is marked by the colour rose to differentiate it from the purple of the Advent season. It is intended to be a mini-break in the Advent penitential season.
It brings to mind the many couples we have interacted with over the years who find themselves in penitential seasons in their marriage. It can sometimes seem interminable – the difficulties they face can persist beyond mere weeks into years.
We think of one couple who has weathered multiple infidelities over more than 25 years of marriage. It is a very long season of penitence that they are in right now – the offending spouse lives with deep regret and contrition awaiting forgiveness and the restoration of trust and intimacy. The other spouse is also doing their own soul-searching.
Miraculously, they have not given up. While it’s a difficult road they are walking together, they look forward with hope to a time when their wounds can be healed. With deep faith they are trusting in God, knowing that despite their challenges, God has a plan and purpose for their marriage.
Along the way of their very difficult journey, small moments of relief are like Gaudete Sunday in their season of Advent. These moments of joy, when the wounds that separate them are temporarily out of mind, are a respite in their long winter and remind them of what is possible.
In our own marriage, we too recognise penitential seasons – times when we felt distant and estranged from each other and thoroughly disillusioned with our marriage. Busyness and stress, distractions and disordered priorities take their toll on our romance as they do for many couples.
The experience of young babies is a good example. With a backdrop of chronic sleep deprivation, a demanding period at work or a run of sickness in the house often tipped the balance. Arguments flared easily and our differences, never far beneath the surface, came roaring out in some of our worst conflicts.
In seasons like these, we are sustained by the ‘Gaudete’ moments: a child who in innocence does the cutest, most adorable thing helping us rise above our sleep-deprived zombie existence. Or a simple gesture of unexpected tenderness from the other breaks through our armoured self-protection when we least deserved it.
In truth, there are many ‘Gaudete moments’ in our marriage: joy spots in the midst of challenges that bolster our hope. The remind us of the joy that God intends for us.
In the mad rush to Christmas, let us not miss this precious reminder – joy awaits those who hope in the Lord.