Today we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent. This day takes its name from the first word of the introit, or entrance antiphon, in Latin: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice! We get the chance to reflect on the whole passage in the second reading for today. “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.” Our first reading and our psalm response for today echo the same sentiments: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!” says Zephaniah. “Cry out with joy and gladness,” sings the Psalmist.
The Gospel takes a slightly different tone. “Now all the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John [the Baptist] might be the Christ.” John goes on to describe the work of Christ: “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.”
Rejoice, then, because it’s nearly time for Christ to come. Rejoice at the idea of baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Rejoice because it is time to sort the wheat and the chaff. All of this sounds great… unless, that is, there’s chaff growing up in my heart. Then maybe I start to get a little nervous. I mean, this is what I’m spending my Advent preparing for, right? But the final exam seems to be upon us, and a winnowing fan and unquenchable fire do sound more than a little intimidating if I’m being honest. Am I prepared enough? Have I done enough? When God looks at my worn and weary dry-bones state of life right now, does He see wheat or chaff?
Today is also, by happy coincidence, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are many remarkable things about the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I encourage you to research them if you are not already familiar with them, but the one particular thing about Our Lady of Guadalupe that stands out to me today is that she is with child. Momma Mary, Theotokos, Christ-bearer, comes to us in this particular image on this particular day of rejoicing and winnowing with the Christ-child in her womb. He is coming with fire and glory to set thing alight, Christ, King of the Universe, and we do need to be prepared, to be sure - but He is also coming tiny and tender, an infant born of Mary, gurgles and baby toes and coos and fresh newborn smell.
And I think we need both, perhaps. The King of the Universe coming to prune me so that I might bear fruit for Him? Baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit? Sounds glorious in theory; maybe terrifying in practice. What if I’m not ready? But a pregnant lady, sweet smile, hands folded, Jesus, King of the Universe kicking inside her belly? I can handle that. I can let her in. And so, God has His foot in the door of my heart. Tiny infant Christ softens me in His coming, helps me to prepare for Him to come again, this time with that winnowing fan and that unquenchable fire, to take from my heart the weeds that choke out His goodness. He says, let me do this in you, that you may be found worthy. Our Lady, who is all wheat, all pure, and yet knows what it is to feel small and unprepared, whispers on this day in particular all the way back from 1531, Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection?
And so even those of us with hesitant hearts can see that this is indeed a day to rejoice. We rejoice that God makes Himself small enough to fit in the Virgin’s womb and the darkest places of our brittle hearts and yet large enough to cut through the chaff so that wheat can grow. We rejoice that He has given us His mother to teach us what it is to be both bold and beloved. And we rejoice in the knowledge that in both His coming as tiny child in Bethlehem all those years ago and His second coming yet to be realized, He desires to love us, cherish us, prune us, and make us new.