3rd Sunday of Advent – December 15, 1991
“Rejoice in the Lord always; I say it again, rejoice.”
This command of St. Paul in today’s second reading proclaims the theme of the liturgy of the Third Sunday of Advent, traditionally referred to as Gaudete Sunday – in Latin Gaudete being the imperative to Rejoice. We Christians are encouraged by the Church to rejoice today because, as St. Paul goes on to say. “The Lord Himself is near.” Thus it is a messianic joy that points us to Christmas, a joy which we also hear about in today’s first reading from the Prophet Zephaniah, who proclaimed: “Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! And then he points to the basic reason for this great joy, just as St. Paul would later, for “the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst…” which the prophet further qualifies a few lines later, where he says ” the Lord, your God, is in your midst. Furthermore, St. Paul assures us that because the Lord is near, we should “have no anxiety at all;” which Zephaniah helps explain when he says, “you have no further misfortune to fear.”
What is particularly interesting about the passage from Zephaniah is that this prophet tells us that our joy is anticipated God’s own joy in the work He is accomplishing in our midst:
The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior;
he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love,
he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.
How incredible is this! God is rejoicing over us; God is singing joyfully because of us! That is God rejoices before we do, and he rejoices because of what he is doing for us. And what is that work he does? Zephaniah fills us in: first, “The LORD has removed the judgment against you.” Second, “he has turned away your enemies.” Third, God is our “mighty savior” who will “renew you in his love.” Everything is to our benefit, and God rejoices for that reason, and we must rejoice as well or we are most ungrateful children. We have nothing to fear, no reason for anxiety for this great work is without end, and he will never abandon us to our enemies again.
So in his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul commands Christians to be filled at every moment, “always,” with that Messianic joy that Zephaniah could only long for, but never experienced it as we should. All this that he looked forward to has now happened, and that means that for us this joy can no longer simply be a joy hoped for in the future, though we do hope that it will even greater in heaven, but rather it must be the joy which is the dominant spirit of Christians here and now. The “Mighty Savior” of Zephaniah is no longer simply a distant hope for the future, but, as Paul says, His peace is in us now, guarding our hearts and minds, fulfilling what the earlier prophet foretold, “he has turned away your enemies.“
It’s true, of course, that we do also look forward to a joy that is pure, unalloyed with any sorrow, which can never be quenched, a joy that no one will have to encourage us to have, but will simply be the constant response of hearts overwhelmed by the greatness of God’s Love. But even now, even though our joy is not yet perfect, since it is often combined, or alloyed with very real human sorrows, and can seem lost at times in the midst of great misfortunes, still, our hearts should always know the Christian joy which is the natural result which follows from our faith in what Jesus has done for us, our hope in what Jesus will do for us in His kingdom, and our Love for the one who has loved us without counting the cost, unto death, for our Salvation.
When you meet a person who has this unique Christian joy that Paul speaks of, literally commands, you will meet a person who can smile in the midst of tears, and whose spirit cannot be broken by the misfortunes of this life. The joyful Christian will know the grief of loss, but will simultaneously know the joy that follows from faith and hope, belief that the loss is not permanent, and hope that the loved one is now in a better world, and will find a happiness that is beyond the capacity of this world to produce. The joyful Christian will feel the pangs of separation, but likewise know the joy of being united with those who though separated from us, by distance or death, but always remain close to us in the Lord. The joyful Christian is not joyful by escaping from this world, but is joyful because he or she has dismissed all anxiety because he or she has entrusted everything into God’s hands. The joyful Christian is joyful simply because the Lord is near, and he or she desires nothing except that the Lord be near, whatever the cost
However, not everyone is happy to have the Lord come near. For instance, when the tax collectors came to John to be Baptized, he told them that they had to repent, or they would not be ready for the Lord who was near. He told the soldiers and tax collectors to stop extorting their neighbors and take only the fixed amount, no bribes, no extortion. Those who were destined for the kingdom, agreed to give up their sinful ways, and therefore did not fear when Christ came near. For instance the good Centurion was certainly ready when Christ came near to him, and he was filled with joy at Jesus’ miracle.
But others, including many among the Pharisees and Sadducees would not repent, and so they were not prepared, and were cut off from the vine. Unfortunately, not even John’s dreadful warnings that the Messiah would burn the chaff in unquenchable fire caused them anxiety, and thus they were by their own hardness of heart barred from the Kingdom by their own refusal to repent.
True Christian joy, then, arises only in hearts and souls that truly treasure heaven and God’s love, more than all else, hearts and souls that are filled with faith, hope and love. Christian joy cannot be found in a heart that does not place God and God’s Kingdom first, above all other things. “Seek first the Kingdom of God” was the command of Jesus. Nor can it be found in a heart that is not totally submissive to the will of God as expressed in His commandments. Christian Joy can coexist in a heart and soul tormented with sorrow and pain, and even coexist at the same time; but this joy cannot coexist with sin and the refusal to repent. Christian joy cannot be extinguished by anything except sin and alienation from God. Christian joy is in itself a permanent possession because it comes not from the world, but from God, who first rejoiced to see us liberated from sin and the enemies of the heart and mind. God rejoiced that we might also rejoice.
That is the joy we long for in the depths of our heart, even if we do not yet possess it for some reason. It is the joy that Christmas heralds and that touches, if only briefly, the soul that is distant from God but not altogether lost. May our Advent preparation bring us an increase in this joy. May our preparation for Christmas deepen this divine gift and make it flourish in the Lord.