The familiar, 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 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 Saint Paul's 1st letter to the Thessalonians - also commands: Rejoice always. ... In all circumstances give thanks.
In our culture, Christmas is generally the cheeriest time of the year. But Christmas cheer is in much shorter supply this year, when so much of what makes this season seem so special – above all, gatherings with family and friends – will not be happening, or will be at best a modest shadow of their normal selves.
Of course, Christmas wasn’t even celebrated in the first three centuries of Christian history. So, when Saint Paul told the Thessalonians to rejoice, he wasn’t sending them a Christmas card. On the contrary, what is 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 (or perhaps especially) in our conflicted, plague-stricken, anxiety-ridden world, a world which, on its own presents precious little reason for either rejoicing or thanksgiving, a world which readily resembles one into which Christ has not come – or within which his coming is not acknowledged or has been forgotten?
Even before the pandemic, “the holidays” were becoming increasingly stressful for a lot of people. Talk about a conflicted, anxiety-ridden world without Christ! So absent has he become from so much of contemporary life that even the celebration of his birth becomes, for some, an occasion for stress and sadness!
Christmas, of course, does have its sentimental side. (After all these years, I still tear up whenever I hear Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas). More pointedly, however, 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, the consequential kind of joy that Paul was talking about, is one the fruits of the Holy Spirit. How many remember the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which we all learned long ago in school? 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 our immediate 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 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 – not just in difficult times like our own – 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.
This Advent reminds me of a wartime letter the imprisoned German Protestant pastor Dietrich Bohoeffer (1906-1945) wrote to his parents on the First Sunday of Advent 1943: "Remember the Altdorfer Christmas scene,” he asked, “in which the Holy Family is depicted with the manger amidst the ruins of a broken down house? It is really contemporary. We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us. I think of you as you now sit together with the children and with all the Advent decorations—as in earlier years you did with us. We must do all this, even more intensively, because we do not know how much longer we have."
That is why we celebrate Christmas when the nights are long and the sky is dark, when it is a real challenge to recognize the light, while we hang lights on evergreen trees to testify to the light against the darkness. As I’ve often said, however, 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, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 13, 2020. The entire Mass may be watched at: