Sunday, December 17, 2017


The familiar title for this Sunday is Gaudete, a Latin imperative plural, commanding us to rejoice.  In the Missal, today’s Mass begins with the words: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”), from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Hence, the rose vestments (in place of penitential purple) and today’s generally cheery tone.  Today’s 2nd reading - from St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians – also commands us: Rejoice always. … In all circumstances give thanks.

Christmas is, for most people, the cheeriest time of the year, and presumably most people are in a holiday mood, in spite of all that may have happened this past year and the increasing gloom that understandably seems to be enveloping our world. Of course, Christmas wasn’t celebrated in the first three centuries of Christian history. Saint Paul wasn’t sending the Thessalonians a Christmas card. Thought to be the earliest New Testament letter, Paul’s 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, he 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 in our conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, a world which, without Christ, presents precious little reason for either rejoicing or thanksgiving? So absent has Christ become from so much of modern and post-modern life that even the annual celebration of his birth has become, for some, increasingly a season of stress and sadness! 

Christmas calls attention to the contradictions in our lives, and highlights how hard it can be to internalize the faith we profess, how challenging it can be to live joyful and thankful lives in the world in which we actually find ourselves.  Christmas commits us to that world, a world where other people make demands on us, and duty challenges us to care about things bigger than just ourselves.  

Joy, of course, is one the fruits of the Holy Spirit. How many here went to Catholic school? Or RCIA? So I can assume you all learned and remember the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which Saint Paul first enumerated. They include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control [Galatians 5:22-23]. So the rejoicing to which Paul refers is not the transient happiness that depends on mere feelings and comes and goes with shifting circumstances. It is, rather, a consequence of the experience of God’s presence and action regardless of circumstances – in good times and in bad.

Hence, Saint Paul’s injunction to test everything, for he well knew 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 responded, first, by clarifying the scope of his activity – or, as we might say, defining his mission – situating it not in reference to himself, but in relation to Christ. Then, he challenged his hearers – as, through them, we ourselves are challenged today – to recognize Christ in our world in the here and now, and to act upon that recognition by situating 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.

That is why we celebrate Christmas when the nights are long and the sky is dark, when it is challenge to recognize the light, while we hang lights on evergreen trees to testify to the light against the darkness. It takes more than a Christmas Tree to make Christmas, however. 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 17, 2017.

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