Rejoicing Always, 3rd Sunday of Advent (C), December 14, 2003

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
3rd Sunday of Advent, C
December 14, 2004
Zeph 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18

1) “What then should we do?” This was the question that was asked to St. John the baptist in today’s Gospel. The question was asked specifically by tax collectors and soldiers. But it is a question that each of us should ask the Lord regularly. “What should we do to fulfill your will?” Today St. Paul answers that question for God very specifically in today’s second reading and the Church features his answer: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!”

2) We call this third Sunday of Advent “Gaudete Sunday” because every year on it the Church has us reflect upon Christian joy. We get the title “Gaudete” from the Latin word for “rejoice” in St. Paul’s letter. On the fourth Sunday of Lent — “Laetare Sunday” the Church likewise has us focus on joy (“Laetare” is a Latin synonym for “rejoice”). On both “Gaudete” and “Laetare” Sundays, the priest uses rose vestments and, during Advent, we light a rose candle on the Advent wreath. The reason why the church has us focus on joy as we approach the celebration of Christmas and the celebration of Easter is because the Church wants to prepare us to erupt with joy as we celebrate those most important days in the history of the world.

3) This is something for which most of need preparation, because the vast majority of Catholics do not live the faith with joy. This is something that young people never cease to remind me. When I ask teenagers who don’t come to Mass why they’ve stopped, many respond by saying Mass seems so dead and purposeless. Most of the “old people” they see look “dead” at Mass, and seem to be come only because they think they “have to be there.” They’ll point to how many people leave Mass before the end of Mass and ask, “How can Mass be so important if they can’t leave fast enough?” They’ll point to the fact that so few people sing. They’ll describe how few people really wish them a genuine sign of peace. They don’t sense joy; they don’t sense much enthusiasm. And looking out from the pulpit and the altar, I have to say that, sometimes, they’re right on. That’s why this Gaudete Sunday is a gift, to get us to focus on the command God gives us through St. Paul to rejoice always, beginning again today.

4) “Rejoice!” St. Paul uses this verb 22 times in his letters and he tells us, as he told the Thessalonians, Philippians, Romans, Galatians, Corinthians and Colossians to rejoice always, gaudete semper: Rejoice in hope (Rom 12:12), rejoice in suffering (1 Cor 12:26), rejoice in obedience (Rom 16:9), rejoice in the truth (1 Cor 13:6), rejoice that Christ is proclaimed (Phil 1:18), rejoice over repentance (2 Cor 7:9), rejoice when weak (2 Cor 13:9), rejoice to be poured out as a libation (Phil 2:17), and, finally, as we have in today’s reading, rejoice that the Lord is near (Phil 4:4) St. Paul was writing this letter as his arm was chained in an Ephesian prison cell where he was suffering, so when he says, “rejoice always,” he means even in suffering. There’s no restriction. There’s no excuse. There’s no expiration date. We are to rejoice always, in good times and in bad. At a human level, this seems so unrealistic, because we’ve all experienced sadness — especially those who have lost a loved one — and basically think that this is normal, “because it happens to everyone.” But St. Paul is not naive and he’s not trying to command us on behalf of God to do something that is impossible. Elsewhere St. Paul says, “This is God’s will for you: rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16). On a human level, it may be impossible, but on a supernatural level it is not, because God will make it possible. But we must say yes to his will and discover why we should be rejoicing always, even in hardship, pain and difficulty.

5) So, today, I’d like to focus on the real sources of our Christian, what makes it possible for us to rejoice always. Then I’ll focus on a few things that rob us of this joy. I hope by reflecting together, in the presence of God, on the “particulars,” we may allow God to take away whatever strips of joy and grow in the sources that allow us to be truly joyful, so that we might live this Advent, this Christmas and indeed our Christian life in the way God wants. We turn first to the sources of Christian joy.

a) The first reason and most fundamental cause of Christian joy is the conviction that God loves us. Ultimately God the Father loves us so much that when it came down a decision between letting his dearly beloved Son be tortured, crucified and killed or letting us die, God chose to allow his Son to die so that we might live. In some respects, one could say that “we” were even dearer to God the Father than His own Son. As if that were not enough, God the Son loved us so much that he freely consented to this plan. No matter what happens to us in this life, that love of God for us remains and is the foundational truth about our existence. God created us out of nothing but his love, directly infusing a soul into the love of our parents. He redeemed us out of a greater love. And awaits us in heaven with loving, open arms, if only we accept that love and live according to it. We, on our part, must believe in God’s deep love for us, accept it, thank him for it and live according to it.

b) The second source of our joy is the fact that God dwells within us through grace. When God sent the Archangel Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth, he gave him a specific message. God didn’t say, “Make it up as you go along,” or, “I don’t care what you say as long as she says ‘yes.’” The message all of heaven was waiting to be enunciated was, “Rejoice, you who have been filled with grace; the Lord is with you.” It was “rejoice!,” not “hail” or a hearty “hello.” Then Gabriel tells her why she should rejoice: “you… have been filled with grace” and “the Lord is with you.” Mary should rejoice because she was full of God, which is what “full of grace” means, and because the Lord was with her. In the first reading, the prophet Zephaniah says something similar to the ancient Israelites, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart… [because] The Lord, your God, is in your midst; … he will renew you in his love.” In the second reading, St. Paul says “rejoice… [because] the Lord is near.” The Lord is indeed WITH US, within us, when we are in the state of grace. God doesn’t just love us, but lives with us in love when we love him in return and allow him to live in us (cf. Jn 14:23). Blessed Don Marmion, whom the Holy Father recently beatified, used to say that “joy is the echo of God’s life within us.” If we realize that one of the chief sources of Christian joy is sanctifying grace, we will then have an even greater appreciation for how joy is tied to the sacraments, especially confession, which restores us to the state of grace, or the Mass, which is meant by God to intensify this loving presence of God within. That’s why I always urge people who want to live a good Advent to go to confession and to attend daily Mass, because of their crucial role in Christian joy.

c) The third source of joy is a deep trust and hope in Divine Providence, no matter what. We see this trust and hope very clearly in the life of the Blessed Mother, who “trusted that what the Lord had spoken to her would be fulfilled,” despite the fact that she might have been stoned under suspicion of adultery when she became pregnant with the Lord, despite the poverty of his birth, despite his being presented the ancient version of embalming fluid (myrrh) at his BIRTH by one of the wisemen pointing to his death, despite Simeon’s prophecy that her own heart would pierced, despite his being killed before her very eyes. She continued to trust in God. For us the reasons for trusting in him are even greater, because we know what happened on Easter Sunday. Not only is God all-loving and living inside of us through sanctifying grace, but he is all-powerful. He is in charge. He’s conquered sin, Satan and death. How can we fail to trust in Him? And how can anything extinguish our joy? “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, … nor anything else in all creation can separate us” from God’s provident love, as St. Paul wrote, and so we have great cause for joy. Even those who from a human point of view are desperate can be profoundly joyful if they trust in God and in his love.

d) The fourth and last source of joy we’ll mention is prayer. Prayer is how we put our trust in God’s providence into action. Jesus said to us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it will be opened to you.” As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians in today’s reading, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the PEACE of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Our joy will flow from that prayerful peace. Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount that if human fathers won’t give their children snakes instead of fish and stones instead of bread, so much more will our Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. And that same Holy Spirit, within us through the divine indwelling, will help us to bear with him the fruit of joy. The ability even to approach God the Father in prayer is a source of joy. The more we pray, and the better we pray, the more joyful we will be.

6) We turn now to the thing that can rob us of joy. Most of these are obvious, but this Advent, we’re called to name them, and take action against them.

a) The first thief of joy is self-pity. Perhaps all of us have experienced this. We can start to feel bad for ourselves, to begin counting not our blessings, but our misfortunes. We can start even to see ourselves as martyrs, constantly suffering, and unfairly at that. Rather than convert humility into an opportunity for giving God praise and joy (as Mary did in the Magnificat), rather than even rejoicing in our sufferings (as St. Paul did from prison), we can start voluntarily to allow those sufferings and difficulties to separate from God. To live up to our vocation to rejoice always, we have to expunge all self-pity.

b) The second thing that robs us of joy is worry. We can start to be eaten alive by preoccupations, fears, what-ifs. Of course there are going to be things that concern us — health problems, loved ones going down the wrong path, whether we’ll be able to fulfill well our duties — but Jesus, who cannot lie nor steer us wrong, tells us not to worry. Listen to him speaking directly to you in the Sermon on the Mount: “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all of them. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his holiness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” If Jesus is saying this about the things we really need — food, shelther, clothing — then he’s saying it about everything else as well that we really don’t need, but about which we’re often worrying. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his holiness,” and everything else we truly need will be given to us besides. Mary, after having been told by the Archangel not to be afraid, taught us the secret here too in her fiat, trusting in willing whatever the Lord allows to happen. “Let it be done to me as you say.” The fact is that we really don’t have the weight of the world on our shoulders, even though at times we feel that we do. I love the story of Bl. Pope John XXIII, who radiated joy throughout the globe during his five-year pontificate. Clearly he at times would have felt the weight of the Church and all her problems on his rather bulky shoulders. But as he would go into his private chapel to pray night prayer and speak to the Lord about the needs of the Church throughout the world, he would always finish by saying, full of trusting confidence, “Signore, é la vostra chiesa. Vado dormire!” “Lord it’s your Church, I’m going to bed!” Sometimes we need to do the same thing, If someone’s worried that a son, for example, is heading down the wrong path, I’d encourage you to say, “Lord, we couldn’t have conceived him without you. He’s your child, too, and you’re omnipotent. I’m going to sleep.” Doubtless all of us who are prone to worrying need to trust more in the Lord like Bl. John XXIII, so that we might radiate the joy that he did.

c) The third thing that robs us of joy is complaining. I think we’ve all met people who would have complained about the menu at the Last Supper! These are those whose glasses are always half-empty, who are more prone to criticize than compliment, to discourage than encourage. This can be common, too, among priests and nuns and among daily communicants. Rather than allowing the Christian life to fill us with joy, we can become like the Pharisees, constantly criticizing others, looking to take the specks out of their own eyes, rather than taking the logs out of our own. The opposite of complaining is gratitude, gratitude for anything the Lord allows.

d) The final thing I’ll mention is really the most fundamental. The greatest thing that threatens our joy is when we place our happiness in anything other than in God. If we set our desires on prestige, advancement, particular material things, the affection of other human beings — or as many in the world do, on power, money, or sex — we’ll NEVER BE JOYOUS. If we don’t achieve what we’re hoping for, it’s obvious why we won’t find joy. But even if we obtain any of these things, we won’t be joyous either. The reason for this is because joy is not the same thing as pleasure. Each of these things — fame, power, even being loved by others — may give us some pleasure, but none of these things will give us joy, because none of them is lasting. Real joy comes from God and Him alone and, as CS Lewis used to say, anyone who has tasted this type of joy would never trade it for all the pleasure in the world. The reason why someone who places a treasure in anything other than God cannot have true joy was very well-put by a priest friend of mine from St. Louis. His almost 50 years of priesthood have convinced him, he told me a short time ago, that if we try to keep God on the periphery of our life, we will never be joyful. There are many people — who are good and moral — who try to keep God a part of their life, but only a small part, and they’re never joyful. For them, God is “important,” but not “all-important,” not #1, not truly God. The reason why they can’t be joyous is two-fold: first, because God will always be trying to get himself to the center; and second, because they’re made to have God at the center and anytime they try to push him to the fringe of their life, their own conscience makes them sad. To be joyful, God must be at the center. We must place our trust in Him. We must place our treasure in Him. We must place our heart, our center in Him.

7) A Christian who is not joyful is an oxymoron. If we’re not joyful, we make the good news a lie. If we were really deeply joyful, on the other hand, the world would be busting down the doors of our church to get in. The world should be invading our church on Christmas, and the Lord wants us to be ready, bursting with enthusiastic joy. What I’m talking about is not some counterfeit type of outgoing, giggly, unrealistic mania, but a deep overflowing sense of God’s love and life within that overflows toward others. This is possible. The Lord would not be calling us to something that, with his help, is impossible. But we just have to say yes and correspond to God’s plans.

8) At this Mass, we have the perfect chance to begin. We are about to have the privilege of privileges, to receive the very flesh and blood of the Son of God within us. What could be a greater blessing in the whole world than to receive God within? This is the sign of God’s love. This is God’s own life within. This is the greatest prayer ever made and the greatest sign of God’s providence, because if God loves us enough to become our very food, then, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “will not God give us everything else besides.” Let us rejoice, therefore, my brothers and sisters in Christ, as we “wait with joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ!”