Advent is traditionally a period of fasting and prayer as we prepare ourselves for the great day of our salvation. But we must remember that it is also a time of joy and anticipation.
It is a time of testing, preparation, and joy.
In traditional Christian imagery there is a depiction of John the Baptist, also called John the Forerunner, having the wings of an angel. He holds in his hand a chalice or plate that sometimes holds his severed head and sometimes contains the Christ child. He also holds a scroll with the inscription “I saw and witnessed concerning Him, behold the Lamb of God, which takes way the sins of the world.” Often there is also a tree next to him with an axe lodged in the tree or lying nearby.
Typical of liturgical imagery, it is a complex composition giving us much to contemplate. In this time of Advent the axe and the tree are a sobering reminder that this is a time to test our resolve to follow the teachings of Christ. “Every tree which does not show good fruit will be hewn down and cast into the fire.” Luke 3:9 If we fall short of this test, if we find that we do not bear “good fruit” we can resolve to do better while we still have time.
But in this Image of John the Baptist, it is the inclusion of angelic wings that are most intriguing. This particular iconic pattern is referred to as “The Angel of the Desert,” and despite the opinion of some ancient scholars it is not meant to suggest that John was an angel in mold of the celestial beings such as Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
The word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos” meaning messenger. This icon of John the Baptist evokes the opening lines of the Gospel according to Mark, “behold I am sending my messenger (angelos) ahead of you, he will prepare your way.”
In a sense the Forerunner continues his ministry even today. He is the messenger sent by God to prepare the way of the Lord. He preaches “good news to the people.” As we await the coming, or advent, of the Lord, John appears in our readings from scripture to encourage us to to repent of our sins and prepare for our salvation.
Advent is traditionally a period of fasting and prayer as we prepare ourselves for the great day of our salvation. But we must remember that it is also a time of joy and anticipation. The Third Sunday of Advent is sometimes called Gaudete Sunday. The celebration of Mass for this day begins with the word “gaudete” the Latin word for rejoice. We rejoice over the coming of the Lord, both as the child in Bethlehem and as the great judge during the last days.
The rose colored candle in the Advent wreath is not an indication of a lessening of our advent preparation, but rather it is a reminder that the entire season of our preparation is a season of joy as we anticipate our freedom from the bondage of sin.
The English-American poet, W.H. Auden once wrote a poem titled “Atlantis.” The poem is something of a guide to the person seeking the lost fabled city. It gives advice on how to deal with all the various distractions and obstacles one may meet on the way. It is a difficult and dangerous journey but the seeker is encouraged to “stagger onward, rejoicing.” In the end the traveler views the city only from a distance, but this too is a blessing. “Give thanks and lie down in peace, having seen your salvation.”
In a sense we are all travelers. Our “Atlantis” is our true home, the home we were made for. The journey is difficult and dangerous and we meet with many distractions and obstacles. Yet we stagger onward rejoicing, for we have been given a glimpse of our salvation. This is the source of our joy.
Christian joy is deeper and wider than mere happiness. It is a joy that does not diminish, no matter how much it is dispensed. Indeed the more we give of this joy the more we retain. And as we come closer to finding our true home, a complete surrender to the friendship of Christ, that joy is intensified.
In his inaugural homily on April 24, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI said this:
"If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you... Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen."
During Advent we tend to focus on fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. We count our many blessings and are especially attentive to the needs of others. There is a penitential flavor to the season as we anticipate the end of all things and the final judgment. But it is also a time of preparation and joy as we look forward to the birth of the one who will make all things new. The third Sunday of Advent is a time when the purple of the penitent is mingled with the white of the purified.
3rd Sunday of Advent
Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at www.pontifex.university
Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at www.DeaconLawrence.org and can be reached at Lawrence@deaconlawrence.com