The third Sunday of Advent marks a shift away from the solemn tone of the previous two Sundays which focus on preparation and hope, to a more joyous atmosphere of anticipation and expectancy. The candle we light on the Advent wreath is pink, reminding us that our waiting is almost over and we can hardly contain our joy. During this week, devoted to the theme of Joy, we are reminded that the Christmas message is one of rejoicing, that the message of the angels to the shepherds was one of “good tidings of great joy.” In fact, the traditional name for the third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for “Rejoice!”, because the command to rejoice appears repeatedly throughout the traditional liturgy.
The theme of rejoicing is overwhelming in the readings for this week. First we read Isaiah’s prophecy of the joys of the coming kingdom and his declaration that “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God” (Isaiah 61:10). Again in Luke we read the words of Mary from her joyful song, the Magnificat: “My soul rejoices in my God, my spirit finds joy in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). The passage we read from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians begins with the words “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), reminding us that we rejoice not only at this time, but at all times because Christ has come and is coming again.
But of all these passages and songs from the third Sunday of Advent that remind me of the joy of Christmas and the joyful message of Christ, I find this week’s Psalm (Psalm 126) particularly interesting:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.
Psalm 126:1-6 (ESV)
I like this psalm because it expresses profound joy at the great things God has done, but it also recognizes—just like the rest of Advent—that the joy of the Kingdom has not yet fully come, but we live with the promise that our joy will be restored. The psalm has two stanzas (verses 1-3; 4-6): the first stanza recalls God’s past acts of restoration and the emotions of joy and celebration that accompanied those saving acts, and the second stanza rephrases these themes in the form of renewed appeals for restoration.
In the beginning of the psalm, the people remember what God had done for them in the past and rejoice; not only has the Lord done “great things,” recognized by the other nations, but “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” But the psalm moves from remembering God’s work in the past to asking God to restore them once again. Mourning has given way to laughter and joy, but that laughter and joy is now in the past, and the community is left hoping that once again the Lord will do a “great thing for us.” The psalmist shifts from remembering the past and instead longs for a similar work of God in the world now, praying that what began in tears and weeping will end with songs of joy and arms filled with proof of God’s great work in their midst.
Psalm 126 is one of the Songs of Ascent—one of the songs sung by travelers as they made their way to the newly rebuilt temple after their return from exile. The Songs of Ascent would be sung as pilgrims made their way “up” to Jerusalem to worship and/or celebrate a special holy day; the themes of these Songs of Ascent are very similar: “God delivered us in the past, and we know God will continue to deliver us now and in the future.” Their deliverance or restoration may not be immediate (suggested by the period of waiting implied by the images of sowing and harvesting), but it is promised, and they live hopefully waiting for its fulfillment.
Just as generations in Israel looked back at the great things God had done for them and at the same time looked toward restoration and a time of joyful harvest in the future, Advent is also a time for us to look back as well as ahead. We remember the joy of the first coming of Christ and all the great things God has done for us, but we also look forward to the second coming of Christ and the time when our joy will be complete. Many in this Advent season are longing for the restoration and reversal expressed in Psalm 126. They are waiting with expectation for tears to be changed into songs of joy—and Advent reminds us that our waiting is not in vain. During Advent we remember God’s restorative acts in the past, our own joy, and the testimony of the nations to God’s deliverance. And we know that until the Son of God comes again, we will be in constant and everlasting need of God’s continued restoration. Psalm 126 reminds us that “the Lord has done great things for us,” and we are called to live expectantly, fully convinced that the tears and weeping of our day will be changed into songs of joy because the God we serve is a God of restoration and reversal. During Advent we recognize that because God has already come to us, we can trust that God will fulfill promises to bring restoration, deliverance, healing, and joy.
Author: Alicia McClintic