This Year of Our Lord, 2021, seems destined to end in both a deep sense of grief and a persistent hope for the future. It is an old story, but perhaps never so acutely felt than at the moment. Yesterday’s devastating tornadoes, an appalling school shooting and another thwarted, an upsurge in the pandemic, economic stresses, and mounting threats to democracy at home and abroad – all could easily and understandably engender moments of dread and anxiety and a longing for a way forward. Or else we’re not paying attention.
It is difficult not to, as the multiple outlets of social media immerse us at every turn in a catalogue of calamities, danger, and misfortune. It is especially noteworthy that anxiety is increasing especially among young people. And yet…
And yet, today Christians throughout the world are called to observe what was once called Gaudete [Rejoice] Sunday, from the opening
words of the entrance song taken from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near!” We hear more of the letter in the second reading, but the exhortation to rejoice sets the tone for the day’s observance. The words “joy” or “rejoice” appear in the readings and responsorial psalm about 10 times. Today, however difficult, we are called on to dismiss all anxiety from our minds and to offer our prayers in a spirit of gratitude, to rejoice.
Since the Middle Ages, the more somber violet vestments of the Advent season were lightened today to rose. Like Laetare Sunday, the third Sunday in Lent, we peer ahead to recall what the season is all about. And of course it is about joy, the common theme of all the liturgies of Advent. But have you ever wondered why we have to be reminded to rejoice? It’s not because everything is going wonderfully well – we would need no reminder in that case. It is because things do not go well and sometimes go very, very badly as they did yesterday, and if we are honest about it, almost everywhere and a lot of the time.
Grief and worry sometimes and perhaps too easily cast a shadow over the season, dimming our anticipation of a joyful Christmas – despite the chorus of commercial promises of instant happiness competing powerfully with news of sorrow, want, and loss. But the clamor of commercialism is at most a distraction covering over the underlying uneasiness that all is very far from well.
And so many of us need to be reminded on this Gaudete Sunday not only to rejoice, but why and what joy really is. In the passages from Zephaniah and Isaiah’s psalm, the Hebrew word for “joy” [ranan] means joyful singing and shouting. Other words used in these texts [sasown and simchah] mean to be bright, cheerful, glad, to rejoice, to be mirthful, even to be welcome. Joy is mentioned more in the Book of Isaiah and the Psalms than in all the other books of the Hebrew Bible put together.
Such joyfulness is not just good cheer or high morale. That kind of joy can’t be bought. It doesn’t have anything to do with merchandise or office parties. Or even lavish lawn decorations. And that’s what the gospel is about, the only reading for today that doesn’t seem to say anything about joy.
When the crowds come to John the Baptizer, they have a sense that something is wrong and he might be able to help them. They were discouraged, sad, and probably fearful. “Tell us what to do,” they say. And what John tells them is startling. “Be generous, be just, be gentle. Tell the truth and stop trashing each other’s reputations. Don’t gripe over your salary.”
It still sounds a bit crazy. Other than billionaire CEOs, who’s ever content with their pay? But John tells the crowd that someone else is coming, someone who will baptize the world in fire and the Holy Spirit. They needed to get ready. He showed them how. And they thought that was very good news.
Perhaps it takes a bit of anxiety and discouragement to appreciate truly good news. That may be why the gospel of Jesus, the “good news” of salvation, was first preached to the poor, the oppressed, the downcast and troubled. And still is. The good news they are looking for, and what they will find, is “God’s own peace,” as Paul writes to the Philippians, “a peace beyond all understanding which will stand guard over your hearts and minds” [Phil 4:7].
In these trying times, when our souls are so likely to be troubled, such deep-rooted gladness of the heart, real cheer, is what the world desperately needs. And as the prophet Zephaniah surprisingly said, “May God rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in love; may God sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals. ‘I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it’” [Zep 4:17-18].
As the great St. Augustine preached as his own world was crumbling before hordes of Vandals, “Sing! But keep moving” [Sermon 256, I.2.3]. It’s good to know that God sings, too. So, yes, rejoice. The Lord is nearer now than ever.