A thin red line

Published on 14 Dec 2018
Sunset over mountains

Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey often describes the dawn as ‘rosy-fingered’. The poet is identifying with that epithet a moment just before the dawn.  There is, in those few minutes, as yet, not even a little light.  The darkness is still impenetrable.  But away on the horizon there is a line of redness.  There is still no daylight: just a thin sliver of glowing.  It is this rose-coloured glow which is celebrated in the vestments of today, Gaudete Sunday. On the rosy-fingered Third Sunday of Advent we look ahead to a dawn not yet quite with us: the dawn of Christ.  The horizon is a thin red line and we anticipate with excitement the great feast to come nine days from now.  When the Christ-child is born a great light will pierce the darkness. Today is the pre-dawn.

A thin red line?  To understand the spirit of this Gaudete stage of Advent perhaps we should consider the heroism of warriors poised to resist a battle-charge. They steel themselves against what is to come but they are also elated at the prospect of what they hope to achieve.  Like such heroes we anticipate the next stage joyfully but aware that the One whom we are awaiting will challenge us and test our mettle. Christ’s coming is not an onslaught against us but it will require us to strain every sinew.  All our skill and energy will go into welcoming him.

Today’s first reading from the prophet Zephaniah has something of this battle-zone atmosphere. The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior.  Until now, we were Advent pilgrims moving towards our destination at an appropriate pace; taking things in the right order; not getting ahead of ourselves. But today we are surprised by joy.  We have been ambushed by the forces of celebration.  We rejoice not so much prematurely but with an intense anticipation. Suddenly our pilgrimage has been surrounded by a noisy invasion from where we thought we would reach in due course and more sedately.  There is a commander marching into our life whom we thought we would find in our midst somewhat later after more preparation. 

Red coated soldiers

God coming to our rescue

Jesus does not ambush us but his taking possession of our life can take us by surprise and astonish us. This is not an invasion but a powerful and welcome reinforcement. The Incarnation is God coming to our rescue with forces which will rout our enemies. Our Saviour has the power to succeed where all other efforts have failed.   We are the miles Christi the soldiers of Christ and we recognise in Jesus the sort of commander who will defeat our opponents, strong as they are. The victorious warrior will exult with joy over you.  He will dance with shouts of joy for you. And great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.  Who has done mighty deeds.  Gaudete Sunday allows us to spot the pinkish glow on the horizon which is from the campfires of a victorious army. This glowing evokes not so much the tumult of battle as the glory of a triumph. Just over the horizon a victory parade is already taking place.  Christ, our commander, is about to arrive and to take charge.  Very vividly, we sense, in advance, what is going to happen.  We feel entitled to rush ahead through the darkness to rejoice with our triumphant Jesus, the promised victor over darkness, sin and death. 

The Collect for today has us pray. O God who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, enable us we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always.   We look towards the glowing horizon and feel ourselves drenched in the rosy hue from there.  The great warrior, Jesus, who is just around the corner, and who will be victorious, will fulfill his mission by the shedding of his blood.  His great suffering already tinges the beginnings of the light of his birth.  His blood mingles with the pink-glow of pre-dawn fire on the horizon.  The thought of Our Lord’s passion, today, Gaudete, deepens our joy.  The sanguinary contribution to the rose colouring of this Sunday renders our anticipatory delight at the Nativity more serious and real.

Our prayer traces the horizons of our existence

One of the Advent Prefaces praises the Saviour who is to come saying that It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity so that he may find us watchful in prayer and exultant in his praise.  Gaudete Sunday is not a noisy invasion of the calm order of Advent by a marching band, prematurely trumpeting success.  Far from being uproarious, Gaudete Sunday is, rather, a tranquil lesson in how to pray. That he may find us watchful in prayer.  The phrase is more redolent of our preparation for the second coming than for our readying ourselves for the Nativity.  We look forward to a future glory of which we are now receiving the first intimations. Our life of prayer always has something of the quality of rosy-fingered dawn and the thin red line of camp-fires far away on the horizon.  We are in the dark, but we strive towards what gleams far ahead.  Not only during Advent, our prayer traces the horizons of our existence with some precision.  The patterns and regularity of our worship and meditation and intercession map out a spiritual life could otherwise seem lacking in contour and depth. 

The pink glow on the horizon in a dark night is the promise of warmth and illumination which frames our spiritual experience.  A lot of the time, interiorly, we are travelling in the dark.  But we head towards the light, or the promise of the light.  We pray where the light might be just about to show itself.  The rejoicing of Gaudete Sunday, then, is a gladness at what prayer is offering us.  A rosy-fingered line of hope which is not only the edge of all our sadness, all that is grim and bleak at this moment, but is also the frontier of a land of rejoicing, presently shrouded in darkness, which is our territory and will be the place of our happiness, once more, before long.

A feeling of expectancy had gown among the people

The Gospel makes what could seem an awkward transition between its account of John the Baptist’s straightforward ethical instructions addressed to diverse inquirers and its explanation of that wonderful Advent phrase A feeling of expectancy had gown among the people.  At one moment some soldiers are being given some pretty basic rules of life coaxing them towards minimal good conduct. At the next that ‘Feeling of expectancy’ is reminding us of the very highest desires in all human beings; desires which the coming of Christ can satisfy in a way, which, we believe, nothing else can. 

John the Baptist reassures us about doing things in the right order.  We are to await the real Saviour.  We should wait, as he, John, does, with humility and focus on God.  But we also wait with a genuine concern about how we are behaving.  The Baptist’s brusque suggestions about charitable sharing and about how tax collectors and soldier ought to conduct themselves are not unconnected to the very highest spiritual ambitions.  The good life is lived with the same courage as might drive forward the sincere prayers expressed within a spiritual life marked by integrity and humility.  Those best prayers of ours draw us forward into a darkness bounded by the love of God which glows on our horizon.  That glow arises, as the Gospel makes clear, from fires of purification which are consuming the chaff.  Those are the fires of the Holy Spirit warming us with wisdom and penitence and gratitude. 

Our deep attraction to the warmth of God’s love does not blind us to the courage that might be required of us to respond to it.  Prayer, however, does rush ahead to the focus of our love and joy.   We hasten towards the rosy-fingered line in the distance, so attractive, so reassuring. Like a ‘plane in the night we speed towards the lights on the horizon.

We know that much is expected of us

John the Baptist warned the soldiers who asked him about how they should respond to the Good News: Be content with your pay.  On Gaudete Sunday we allow ourselves to be persuaded of the rightness of acceptance of what is offered to us spiritually. For the moment there is not even a light in the distance just the glowing promise of such a light.  In our prayer, let us be content with what is given to us.  Bracing ourselves for battle in a thin red line, we know that much is expected of us.  We are to be on guard awaiting the Saviour.  We are to keep vigil for his return.  We are sentries guarding our faith and our heart so that all will be in order when He comes.   These duties are fatiguing, however.  There is too much darkness.  We wish to understand more: much will be revealed.  We wish to live better: grace will be given sufficient to strengthen and even to sanctify us.  We look forward to the light: a great light is about to dawn. Jesus Christ is on the horizon, and, wonderfully, already in our midst.  The glow on the horizon is from the fires of victory. 

Peter Gallagher SJ