On December 16, the Third Sunday of Advent, the Church will celebrate what is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete, the opening word of the Introit (the antiphon of the Roman Gradual) for this day, comes from the Latin version of the second reading, Philippians 4:4: Gaudete in Domino semper: hernum dico gaudete (“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”). The Third Sunday of Advent sets a tone of rejoicing, of joyful expectation. In the gospel reading for this day the response of the people who heard John the Baptist preach is also a reminder of what can happen to us when we are genuinely open to the One who is to come: “Now the people were filled with expectation” (Lk 3:15). John’s disciples did not know the identity of this “One” but still rejoiced in their hope, openness, and expectation to that for which they know not what. Nor do we today know the guise under which we will encounter the “One.” But the Church—the other, this One—summons us, claims us, Gaudete!
A prayer by the great fourth century mystic and doctor of the Church, Augustine, has haunted me ever since I first read it. Buried in Chapter 5, Book 1, of his famed Confessions, this prayer is easily overlooked. We might be tempted to skim past these words, but we must not; we must stop; we must pray Augustine’s words and make them our own. They read, “Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation.” This prayer can guide us here and now, like the blind, and throughout our lives. The blind and indeterminate openness to what or who is to come obliterates any expectation of what or who is to come and thus creates a time that is imbued with messianic hope to welcome that which totally other, Gaudete!
This Advent I decided to try something new. I embraced Augustine’s prayer and made it my own. I am heeding the words of Saint Paul from the second reading that remind us to “have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make [our] requests known to God” (Phil 4:6). This Advent my request to God has been and continues to be for the grace that I may hear with the ears of my heart. Instead of writing academic articles or delivering speeches about Advent, this year I want Advent to read, interpret, and write me—indeed, to read and write us. I pray that Advent interpret us and our lives, and so write (incarnate) the events that constitute the One who is to come—our salvation. In so doing, we join the Baptist in preaching “good news to the people” (Lk 3:18) of the one who “is coming” (3:16); this is the one whose sandals we are not “worthy to loosen” and who will baptize us “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16), Gaudete!
We can hardly help but read or hear many holy texts of Scripture during Advent. Will we allow these words to read, interpret, and write us? Will we allow these Advent words to create a space for the joyful expectation of the One who is to come? To create room for the One who is to come, we must take these ingenious words of Augustine not only as prophetic, but also as a challenge: we must listen with the ears of our hearts. The ears of our minds may hear with absolute clarity and certainty all the while the ears of our hearts remain hard, deaf, closed. What the ears of the heart hear creates a space (chōra) for the one who is coming—a manger for the coming Word to become flesh and dwell among us. This invitation to something new is a provocation to something otherwise and to participate in effecting its transformation (justice), now—today. This is why we can rejoice with Saint Paul that “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7), Gaudete!
During this most holy season, let us not only listen carefully and be present with the ears of our minds but even and perhaps more importantly with the ears of our hearts. This Advent let us prepare the way of the Lord by listening carefully to what is reading and writing us: this other who is to come. This is the new “day of the Lord” to which Zephaniah invites us in the first reading. The other is coming and indeed, is already “in your midst” as the One who is to come and for this we can “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zep 3:14). Who is this other? Who is this other that beckons us? What is the claim this other has on us?
“Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation.”
This is my Advent prayer. I invite you to make it yours. Maranatha!