The third Sunday of Advent is usually called Gaudete Sunday which means “Rejoice.” The words of the antiphon for this Sunday says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice.” (Gaudete in Domino semper; iterum dico, Gaudete). The immediate question in the crazy 2020, with all its challenges, job losses, depressions, financial problems, sicknesses, COVID-19 aggravated stresses, and deaths would be, why rejoice? I am not sure if anyone has the answers to all of the questions during this period, all I know is that we need to understand the real meaning of following Christ to be able to distinguish between physical and spiritual joy, between the seen and unseen, between immediate and eternal realities.
The prophet Isaiah kicks off the theme of joy with the Old Testament text speaking about the Lord’s anointing. The prophet proclaims restoration and healing in the land -the messiah brings glad tidings to the poor, announces liberty to captives, healing to the brokenhearted, freedom to prisoners, and finally declares the Lord’s year of favor to all. The background of Isaiah’s prophecy is the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. The years that followed Israel’s return were tough and daunting. They face the great challenge of reconstructing the temple. They deal with political instability and threats posed by Greeks and Roman occupancy. They confront the fact that the Hebrew religion split into factions generating conflicting voices. This was the circumstance that prompted Isaiah’s prophecy. To push them into a deeper understanding of the source of their joy, Isaiah makes a self-disclosure, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels” (Is. 61:10).
The life of John the Baptist in the New Testament shows the continuity of prophecy which shows the imminence of the coming messiah. The Baptist’s mission is all about announcing Christ’s presence to the people; nothing else mattered for him. The people ask him about his identity and pressure him to assume the messianic posture, but John speaks clearly to the objective of his mission, “I am not the Christ.” John does not mince words in stating who he is, “the voice of one crying out in the desert. Make straight the way of the Lord.” Here, we notice that John’s exclamation resides in his role for the coming of Christ, the reason for his joy. John is not able to see directly the miracles Jesus did -the deaf hear, the blind see; the lame walk- Yet, he is joyful for his mission, a messenger of the good news of salvation, announcing freedom, healing for the weak and brokenhearted. For John it’s an act of faith to believe.
This message becomes clearer in the second reading when we hear St. Paul state emphatically, “Rejoice always.” Paul offers Christians what could be seen as codes for authentic happiness in the Lord: 1. Rejoice. 2. Pray. 3. Give thanks. 4. Be open to the Holy Spirit. 5. Listen to prophetic utterances. 6. Do not be susceptible to evil. For Paul, following these steps will in turn confirm God’s presence in believers. Hence, through the Thessalonian community, we are reminded of the source of joy; God who calls us to Himself is faithful and would accomplish his promises.
If we identify with Saint Paul, we remember that as an apostle to the Gentiles, one chosen in a mysterious way, he has a huge experience with suffering, pain, rejection, betrayal, and losses. At a point, Paul laments about what he calls “a thorn in the flesh” inflicted upon him by the messenger of Satan. Rather than be discouraged, Paul declares, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10).
So, should we rejoice in this crazy year? Should we be joyful when we are still going through a terribly stress-driven, anxiety-ridden year? Following the announcements from Anne Arundel County last Wednesday, things are going to become more difficult this coming week. Visits to restaurants are only allowed if it is a carry-out. And here at our parish, our community relies extensively on small businesses to support our ministries. For instance, the Family Apostolate magazine is sponsored mostly by small businesses -funeral homes, restaurants, Catholic schools, mechanic shops, etc. Many of these businesses are stressed and having to lay-off employees. Things seem apparently hard for us too. Do we still have to rejoice?
Also thinking about the timing, COVID-generated restrictions are coming at a time when families want to share Christmas together. They want to enjoy meals, exchange gifts, spend quality time together. Many immigrants who would want to travel home are not able to. In the context of restrictions, guidelines, and possible lockdowns, what does celebrating Christmas look like in 2020? Why rejoice? Where do we find the peace and joy of Christmas? In many ways, COVID is stripping us to the bare essentials. Is that totally bad? Is life becoming less boisterous and more quiet? Joseph and Mary quietly heard the voice of God and it changed the whole world. This is a major key to peace and joy at Christmas. It leads to a rejoicing heart. God speaks to every soul, not just saints and prophets, not just Mary and Joseph. There is a beautiful Christmas hymn called “Do you hear what I hear?” The last stanza sings: Said the king to the people everywhere, listen to what I say, pray for peace people everywhere, listen to what I say, the child, the child, sleeping in the night, He will bring us goodness and light.
Are you able to hear the voice of God that says to you today, “Rejoice!”? God penetrates your heart with his words and He speaks to each soul personally. The voice of God brings peace. The peace of Christmas is hearing and receiving the Word made flesh into our hearts. This is the meaning of Gaudete Sunday. The Christ Child brings peace, not as the world gives peace and it requires our cooperation. The Lord wants us to make an effort to hear him and spend time with him in prayer.
Paul says, “for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” God’s will for us is to rejoice in Him. One great thing about this year is that it exposes us not just to what we want but to value and appreciate what we have. First, rejoice that you have God. Rejoice that you are part of the Christian community that is alive to celebrate Christmas. Rejoice at the privilege of experiencing God’s grace and mercy. Rejoice that you outlived the craziness of this year since February with the COVID crises, the election confusion, and the overwhelmingly annoying media fallacies. Rejoice that you know Christ and like John the Baptist, can testify to His presence. Rejoice most importantly that the light of God’s love is shining in your family and for your loved ones. Rejoice on remembering that God who calls you is faithful and will not fail you. The battle is not over but the joy of knowing Christ surpasses the troubles of the moment. Saint Paul reminds us, “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed— always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4”9-10) Our joy comes from knowing that Emmanuel, God is now with us. Rejoice and shout with the Blessed Virgin Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Lk. 1:46-47)