Third Sunday of Advent – Year A
Is 61:1-2a, 10-11, Lk 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54, 13-14, 1 Thes 5:16-24, Jn 1:6-8, 19-28
Brothers and sisters, today we celebrate the Third Sunday of Advent. This Sunday is sometimes called Gaudete Sunday, which literally means All of you, rejoice Sunday. That name comes from the entrance antiphon for Mass, which is taken from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.” Indeed, everything in today’s Mass points to the joy that we should have at Christmas. As we heard in the collect prayer: “Enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.” In the first reading Isaiah tells us “Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee,” and the Psalm continues the theme: we’re made to understand that joy is something coming, but it might not be here yet. In the second reading James doesn’t seem to talk much about joy, but rather about patience. In the Gospel, too, John the Baptist doesn’t seem to be too joyful. It’s a little difficult to be joyful when you’re in jail.
We know too that sometimes it’s difficult to be joyful. We encounter a lot of hardships and suffering in this world, and sometimes we might wonder about how Paul can tell us to “rejoice always” when there are so many things that want to take that joy away from us. Today, then, we can consider two things: first, what Christian joy is, especially how it’s connected with God, and secondly, the link between joy and suffering. So, what joy is and how it comes from God, and how to reconcile joy with suffering.
First, Christian joy is very different from simply worldly happiness or being content or “ok.” It’s something far more profound, something much deeper, than that. First and foremost, there’s an important connection between Christian joy and God’s grace. On one hand, this is a linguistic connection: this Greek word for joy, χαρά (khar-ah’), and the word for grace, χάρις (khar’-ece), come from the same root. True joy is rooted in God. In fact, Pope Francis said as much in his Evangelii Gaudium: “Joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life,” he writes, “especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved” (EG, 6). The fact that God loves us, and loves us enough to send His only-begotten Son to suffer and die for us, is the foundation of our joy. This means that Christian joy isn’t just an emotion; it’s not just some occasional feeling. Rather, it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, meaning that it is “a perfection that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory” (CCC, 1832). It is a first fruit, a sort of appetizer or sampling, of what heaven will be like. Perhaps Saint Teresa of the Andes, a Carmelite nun, said it best: “I am the happiest creature in the world,” she wrote. “God is infinite joy” (Letter 101). God is infinite joy.
Indeed, in a very beautiful apostolic exhortation, entitled Gaudete in Domino, Saint Pope Paul VI tells us that Christ Himself is the model of Christian joy, just as He is the model for everything else in the Christian life. The Pope writes: “It is necessary here below to understand properly the secret of the unfathomable joy which dwells in Jesus and which is special to Him. . . . If Jesus radiates such peace, such assurance, such happiness, such availability, it is by reason of the inexpressible love by which He knows that He is loved by His Father.” “If Jesus radiates such peace, such assurance, such happiness, such availability, it is by reason of the inexpressible love by which He knows that He is loved by His Father.” Joy follows from love.
The characteristics of Christian joy flow from this exemplar. As the Pope says elsewhere, “in essence, Christian joy is the spiritual sharing in the unfathomable joy, both divine and human, which is in the heart of Jesus Christ glorified.” It’s amazing to think that God calls us to participate not only in His limitless, inexpressible, and unfathomable love for us, but also in the infinite joy that follows from it. Paul VI explains that “this joy of living in God’s love begins here below. It is the joy of the kingdom of God. But it is granted on a steep road which requires a total confidence in the Father and in the Son, and a preference given to the kingdom.” Note the two requirements: total confidence in God, and a preference for His kingdom. Total confidence in God stems from a true and unequivocal belief in His love for us, and that leads to action, to a preference for His works and righteousness. As God’s love never changes, neither should our joy, if it’s firmly and truly rooted in Him.
This leads us to our second point: the connection between joy and suffering. It would seem that suffering somehow prevents joy. However, in the presence of Christ, that sorrow and suffering is, rather, transformed into joy, because I know that whatever God permits to come my way, is for my sanctification. He wants me to become a saint, and so, since I know that He loves me, and that that never changes, no matter what happens, I will be joyful. Indeed, if we know where we’re headed, to heaven, and if we know that infinite joy that awaits us, then the nearer we draw to God, the more joyful we become. No matter the difficult circumstances that surround us, we can be joyful: this is why, as G. K. Chesterton said, “Joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian” (Orthodoxy).
As difficult as this truth might seem, it is verified in the lives of the saints. We can consider, for instance, the example of Saint Gabriel Possenti, who died at the age of 24, was known for his joy. Even in the midst of great sufferings from tuberculosis, he would write to his father “My life is one of unending joy.” In fact, his brothers in the monastery often sought to be with him in his cell, taking care of him, since his joy was so great, “it cheered and warmed them like sunshine.” Or Saint Teresa of the Andes, who, although born into a wealthy family, gave up everything to become a Carmelite. She herself said, “When Jesus is loved, everything is joy! The cross is not heavy; martyrdom is not felt. We live more in heaven than on earth.’” In her letter to her older sister, Lucia, (letter 112) she said, “I want to tell you about my happiness. Yes, I want you to feel for just a moment, the happiness of belonging entirely to God, but there’s no human language that can express the divine feelings in which my soul finds itself submerged. I’ve given Him everything, it’s true, but I’ve also come to possess the one who is Everything.” In that she found her joy.
In his exhortation, Saint Paul VI places Mary at the head of the joyful saints, writing that “with Christ, she sums up in herself all joys; she lives the perfect joy promised to the Church: Mater plena sanctae laetitiae. And it is with good reason that her children on earth, turning to her who is the mother of hope and of grace, invoke her as the cause of their joy: Causa nostrae laetitiae.”
As we prepare for Christ’s birth at Christmas, let us ask, through the intercession of Mary, Cause of Our Joy, for the grace to live in a spirit of Christian joy, not only during this time of Advent, but always.