The well-known, traditional title for this Sunday is Gaudete, a Latin command to rejoice. Until 1969 , today’s Mass always began with the words: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”), taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. [Supplementary Note: In theory at least, the Mass still actually begins with those words even now, since the singing of an "opening hymn" is a concession - the last of several options - which still, in the spirit of what Vatican II actually said, favor the singing of the traditional Introit.] Hence, the rose vestments (in place of penitential purple) and today’s generally cheery tone. Today’s 2nd reading [1 Thessalonians 5:16-24] also commands us: Rejoice always. … In all circumstances give thanks.
Christmas is, for most people, the cheeriest time of the year. So why, you might ask, do we need to be told to rejoice? Of course, Christmas wasn’t celebrated in the first three centuries of Christian history. So, whatever St. Paul was doing, he wasn’t sending the Thessalonians a Christmas card. On the contrary, Paul’s 1st letter to the Christian community he had started in Thessalonika – thought to be the earliest New Testament letter - was written to encourage them and strengthen their faith, despite difficult circumstances. The command to rejoice, therefore, was not some sentimental slogan or holiday greeting, but was for Paul the consequence of faith in Christ. In all circumstances [St. Paul says] give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Now, if Paul is right about rejoicing and thanksgiving being the consequences of our faith in Christ, then what other response on our part could possibly proclaim Christ and his Church – even, perhaps especially, in our conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, a world which, without Christ, demonstrably presents precious little reason for either rejoicing or thanksgiving? A world into which Christ has not come – or in which his coming is not acknowledged – is a ready recipe for a seriously conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, the kind of world we sadly see so much of. So absent has Christ seemingly become from so much of modern and post-modern life that even the annual celebration of his birth has become, for some, a season of stress and sadness!
Joy, of course, the consequential kind of joy that Paul was talking about, is one the fruits of the Holy Spirit. How many here went to Catholic school? Do you all remember the fruits of the Holy Spirit. It was Saint Paul who first enumerated them: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control [Galatians 5:22-23]. So the rejoicing to which Paul refers is not some transient feeling that may come and go according to shifting circumstances. It is, rather, a consequence of the reality and vitality of how we have experienced God’s presence and action in our lives regardless of transient circumstances – in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in war and in peace, in prosperity and in recession.
Hence, St. Paul’s command to test everything, for he understood perfectly well that not every happy feeling comes from the Holy Spirit, but only what actually leads us to recognize Christ and to act upon that recognition.
It was for a similar reason – to test whether or not John the Baptist was the real thing – that priests and Levites and Pharisees were sent to John from Jerusalem [John 1:6-8, 19-28]. John responded, as we might say today, by defining his mission – situating it not in reference to himself, but in relation to Christ. Then, he challenged his hearers – and through them us – to recognize Christ coming into our world in the here and now, and so to reorient our lives in relation to him.
At all times – especially in difficult times, but at all times – the rejoicing and thanksgiving of which Paul spoke, the rejoicing and thanksgiving that counter that sadness that corrodes our desire for God, do not just happen automatically. They happen when I recognize what a difference it makes to me that Christ has come into the world, and then act on that recognition through my participation in the community of his Church.
As I’ve often said, it takes more than a Christmas Tree to make Christmas. Rather it requires us to become Christmas Trees ourselves, to testify to the light with rejoicing and thanksgiving – so that the whole world will recognize the light of Christ present and active in his Church, and so see his face, and hear his word, and be embraced by his love.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 14, 2014.