by Bill Carroll
Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is also known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete because that’s the first word of the traditional Latin introit for today’s Eucharist. It comes from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice. It’s as if Mother Church, pregnant with the Christ child, has begun to blush and glow in anticipation of his birth.
Like the third candle on the Advent wreath, the vestments are (in many places) rose-colored to suggest our joy that Jesus is near. This makes me think of my friend and former colleague, Don Armentrout. Don was a Lutheran pastor who devoted most of his life to the history of the Episcopal Church. He loved the Episcopal Church as much as his own, and he taught our seminarians, lived with our flaws, and prayed with our Prayer Book since his early twenties. But, when he saw our clergy put on our fancy frocks, he couldn’t help himself. He shook his head a little and said; “A pretty priest is a happy priest.”
But vestments mean more than looking pretty, don’t they? The beauty of our worship is meant to invite us to share in the beauty of God. As the Psalm says, we are to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Moreover, as a priest, when I vest for the liturgy of the day, I am symbolically divesting myself of all the imperfections that get in the way of Christ. Every detail of our liturgy is meant to focus our attention where it belongs–the coming of Jesus in mercy, truth, and LOVE.
The traditional prayers at the time of vesting suggest as much. When the priest puts on the alb, for example, he or she prays:
CLEANSE me, O Lord, and purify my heart, that, being made white in the Blood of the Lamb, I may attain everlasting joy.
Later, when placing the stole around the neck, he or she says:
GIVE me again, O Lord, the stole of immortality, which I lost by the transgression of my first parents, and although I am unworthy to come unto Thy Holy Sacrament, grant that I may attain everlasting felicity.
And finally, when putting on the chasuble:
LORD, who hast said, My yoke is easy, and My burden is light, grant that I may so bear it, as to attain Thy grace. Amen.
For me, praying such prayers plays a similar role to the opening hymn and Collect for Purity. All of it is a way to get centered and grounded in Jesus and to remember what our worship is all about. It reminds me of something Thomas Merton wrote in The Sign of Jonas, where he speaks of the “poverty of the priest” who “disappears into the mass.” The point of the chasuble, like that of every beautiful object and stylized gesture of the liturgy, is that it’s not about us but about the Lord Jesus.
The Holy Eucharist is about being taken up into his one great offering of himself, so that he may dwell in us and we in him. A priest is vested for the same reason he or she is ordained–to show forth Jesus in the midst of the People and to carry their burdens to God in prayer. The vestments match the altar cloths and other hangings in the Church, because the whole ministry of a priest is an extension of the mysteries of the Altar.
It’s important to see, however, that the foundational image here is that of the baptism we share. As the Apostle Paul teaches, baptism is where we put off the old humanity and put on the new. In the baptismal font, we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. In baptism, we are clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ, as we die to sin and live to God. Becoming a Christian means discovering, again and again, our absolute poverty and dependence on God. It means putting on a garment that can only come as a gift. It means making our whole lives a witness to Jesus and his grace. As Christian people, we are called to rejoice and live in gratitude, since all we are comes as a gift from God.
And so, like Merton’s priest, we disappear into the mass. For we are living stones, built by grace into God’s Temple. And we give ourselves over, body and soul, to the Spirit-filled action that unites us in Christ. With the bread and wine, we are taken, blessed, broken, and given for the life of the world. And we are sent as witnesses. Jesus sends us in all our brokenness and humanity. He sends us to be his Body in the world.
That brings us to the Gospel. We are not that different from the Baptist, you and me. We are not that different, because we are called to be witnesses. The difference between John and us is how consistently he points away from himself. Again and again, he confesses and does not deny. I am not the Christ, he says. I am not Elijah. I am not the Prophet. I am only a voice crying in the wilderness, a witness who points out the Way.
The whole being of John is defined by this pointing. He points away from himself and toward Christ. He knows he is sent by Another. He is sent for testimony. He is like a mirror–only useful when he reflects his Lord. He is like the moon, who gives us all light, but only the reflected light of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness.
John disappears into his testimony. Just as Merton’s priest disappears into the mass. Just as each one of us disappears into his or her own unique calling from God. For when we lose our life, we find it. As we depend more completely on God, we become more fully ourselves. As Merton (along with Karl Rahner, Anne Carr, Kathryn Tanner, and others) often observed: God is the one person on whom we can rely fully, because God’s glory never comes at our expense. The more we depend on God, the more we are free to be truly ourselves.
In Jesus, we come, more and more, to reflect God’s love and truth. We do so for all those neighbors who long for a word of grace, forgiveness, and justice. We do so in our families, neighborhoods, churches, and schools. We do so in the workplace, in the marketplace, and in the public square. We do so in all the places we live our lives as the baptized People of God. That’s because this is who God called us and sent us to be–witnesses of Jesus and his love.
What a sacred calling! How truly right and a good and joyful thing! And so, in the grace of our baptism and of this Holy Communion, we live out the words of the prophet:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation.