“Rejoice in the Lord always…the Lord is near!”

That message from St. Paul, from the opening chant for this Mass, sets the tone for this Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing. Christmas is just two weeks away. The Lord IS near!

If you have any doubts, just look around. Take a moment and see, really see, what is in this church.

It may look like the usual Christmas decorations are going up. We see that every year. But there is more happening around us. We are a faith of signs and symbols. And they are abundant this weekend.

They remind us of God’s closeness, his endless love, the miracle that is the Incarnation.

Attention must be paid.

Let me mention just three things that give special meaning to this weekend.

First, perhaps most obviously, there are the vestments we’re wearing.

No, the color is not pink.

In fact, it is called “rose,” a more subdued shade than pink. Liturgists will tell you that it represents rejoicing, and it breaks up the more somber shades of violet or purple we’ve been wearing during Advent.  Rose also appears near the end of Lent, for the same reason: it foreshadows joy.

Brother Hyacinth Cordell, a Dominican, wrote about this several years ago. He explained that nature’s cycle is comprised of two things: life and light. The seasons revolve around that—the rejuvenation of spring and summer, the desolation of fall and winter. Our liturgical seasons follow a similar pattern.

“The dark color of violet in Advent,” he wrote, “harmonizes well with the diminishing sunlight late in the year.” Violet also points to royalty, and Christ as our King.

But then, suddenly, in the middle of it all, there is this color, rose.

It is a color of quiet hope.

“Rose,” he wrote, “is a softening of violet. It is violet approaching white. In this sense, it anticipates the pure white of the Birth and Resurrection of Christ.”

The fact is: as we stand before you today, we wear these vestments and bear witness to what is to come: in the winter of our world, we await a springtime of hope.

The reading from Isaiah speaks of a flowering in the desert:

“The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers and rejoice with joyful song.”

The Gospel, too, points to a kind of flowering in the desert—a blooming of prophetic possibility through John the Baptist, the forerunner, who pointed his followers to Jesus. And it is Jesus who himself brought forth new life to a dry land: sight to the blind, healing to lepers, good news to the poor.

For us today, this color rose is a sign of life in a place that is parched—the desert of our existence, the very place Christ came to redeem.

A second proclamation is found hanging on the walls of the church.

You can’t miss them. These massive evergreen wreaths represent eternal life and announce the promise of Christ’s coming. They form a circle to symbolize the unending love of God — love that, like a circle, has no beginning and no end.

The bright red ribbons remind us of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the blood that he shed for our salvation.

Think of that the next time you see a wreath on a neighbor’s door. It is more than a pretty decoration. It is the Gospel, expressing God’s limitless love and his son’s profound sacrifice.

A third proclamation of faith is in something less obvious: the bambinelli. This is “Bambinelli Sunday,”or Baby Jesus Sunday, when at the end of Mass, we bless the small Baby Jesus that will be placed in our Nativity scenes at home.

In presenting our own Baby Jesus for a blessing, we realize once again that our God came to us as someone vulnerable and small, someone we cannot help but care for and love.

We will be seeing the Baby Jesus again and again in homes, churches, on Christmas cards, on postage stamps. Don’t take that for granted.

Stop. Look. Remember.

Wherever we see the “bambinelli,” the Baby Jesus, may we remember God’s profound humility — and remember that Jesus is near.

As I say so often during this season: the Messiah’s name, Emmanuel, means “God with us.” He is. What is in this church affirms it.

What we see around us proclaims that as powerfully as what we hear in scripture.

Just three days ago, the Gospel we heard put these words in the mouth of an angel, speaking to a teenage girl expecting a child: “Do not be afraid.”

Today, the message becomes more insistent.

“Rejoice in the Lord always … the Lord is near.”

This is our faith: full of trust, confidence and hope in God’s promise of salvation.

It gives us courage in the face of what is — and confident joy ahead of what will be.

Yes, “The Lord is near.”

This weekend, look around and see it for yourself.

This sacred space, our parish church, suddenly takes on new meaning. It bears the promise of something wondrous about to come.

This building becomes a prophet, signaling hope to a weary world.

It is a sermon in stone. It proclaims, for anyone who cares to look:

The Lord is near. 

This is what we hope for, and wait for, in the final days of Advent.

The words of a great 15th century carol say it better than I can, reminding us that what we see points to a promise about to be fulfilled:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung! Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere.

As we prepare to welcome Jesus at Christmas, may we welcome him, as well, into our hearts as we receive the Eucharist today, remembering how everything around us echoes these words, four words that should make all of us rejoice:

“The Lord is near.”