“Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again. Rejoice!” These words of St. Paul to the Philippians capture the joyful spirit that radiates from the liturgy of the Third Sunday of Advent. Together with the whole Church, we “dismiss all anxiety from our minds” and we rejoice, for “the Lord himself is near.” In fact, the whole Advent season radiates with joy, the joy of anticipation, but today this joy is most prominent. There is even a traditional Latin name for this day, “Gaudete Sunday,” meaning “rejoice,” and an option to use rose-colored vestments, rather than Advent’s usual violet vestments. (This also explains why the third candle on an Advent wreath is pink.) Today the first two readings and the psalm – actually a canticle from prophet Isaiah – all focus on the joy we experience at the coming of the Lord.
The prophet Zephaniah urges us to rejoice because, now that the Lord is in our midst, we have been set free from our enemies. We have “no further misfortune to fear.” This kind of rejoicing is understandable to us; even on a natural level, freedom and security always tend to fill our hearts with joy. How much greater is the joy of being set free from sin! But the reading goes further, revealing how much the Lord himself rejoices over our salvation: “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.” The prophet indicates that God’s rejoicing is even greater than ours; while we are rejoicing, he is singing and dancing as people do at a joyous festival.
We cannot fully appreciate joy in the Lord unless we also reflect on the joy of the Lord. Otherwise, we may conclude that joy is for us, not for God. Our joy, however, is only a weak reflection of his. God is the truly joyful One, and he wants us to share in his own unsurpassable joy. There are many passages in the scriptures that speak of God’s joy, especially his joy when we turn from sin and accept his love. Perhaps the best image of this is the father who hosts a joyful banquet, complete with music and dancing, when his “prodigal son” returns home. In that parable, Jesus reveals that great rejoicing fills heaven at the repentance of even one sinner (cf. Lk 15:7, 10, 24). As we observe the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which just began last week, we pray that this joy of heaven may overflow on earth, as many more people discover how merciful God is.
The more we reflect on the joy of the Lord, the more we begin to understand why his joy is greater than ours. He loves more; he gives more. We experience the joy of receiving, but the Lord’s joy is the joy of giving. And, as Jesus himself taught, “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving” (Acts 20:35). This is the secret of joy. The more we love, the more we are like God, the more we rejoice.
This is particularly important to recall at Christmas time. This time of year, children are happy because they anticipate receiving Christmas gifts. It is the fleeting joy of receiving. Their parents, if they know the secret, rejoice even more that they are able to give something to their children. If they are wise, the parents will also teach the children to give, to overcome their tendency to selfishness. Selfishness eventually kills even the simplest joys.
Today’s gospel, unlike the other readings, does not focus directly on the joy of the Lord’s coming. However, it is closely related. John the Baptist points out the way to true joy by offering practical counsel to the various groups of people who approach him. Everyone is asking John, “What are we to do?” They have already heeded the call to repentance, and they realize that there is more to it than simply being baptized. They want to know how to live a new way.
We also want to know what we must do in order to find lasting joy. John’s wisdom applies to us all. His advice is built on the fundamental requirements of justice. We are not all obliged to quit our jobs and leave the world. Seldom does the Lord ask anyone for big public shows of sacrifice or generosity. Most people are called to live as Christian witnesses in the world. If we have more than we need, we should share with those who are deprived. If we are in charge of public funds or if we have a position of authority, we are obliged to be fair. Justice is a necessary foundation for charity. Putting John’s wise advice into practice will lead us to the experience of joy in the Lord. The Lord is already in our midst when we are willing to change our hearts and our practices, for the good of the other.
In what ways do I find joy in the nearness of the Lord? Reflecting on how I relate to others, am I just? Do my actions radiate the peace and joy of God? If not, why not?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 12, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.