Sunday, December 17, 2023



The familiar, traditional title for this Sunday is Gaudete, a Latin command to rejoice.  Until 1969 (and in theory still actually even now), 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.  Back when we took Advent more seriously, this Sunday had numerous distinguishing liturgical markers in addition to the rose vestments. In still living memory, on this special Sunday the deacon and Subdeacon wore dalmatic and tunicle instead of "folded chasubles" (planetae plicatae), flowers were permitted to decorate the altar, and the organ was permitted to be played (neither of which was officially permitted on the other Sundays of Advent). Of course, that is all ancient history now. The rose vestments remain - a vestigial curiosity that is charmingly popular but basically bereft of its original meaning. Other than the oddball liturgical enthusiast, who actually cares?

Nonetheless, the liturgy today continues to command us to rejoice. For example, today’s second reading - from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians – commands us: Rejoice always. … In all circumstances give thanks.

Well, it is Christmastime, of course. So there is a lot of rejoicing going on, even in spite of the fact that 2023 has hardly been a particularly joyful year for many people. There are two big wars going on, plus a number of other wars, which our news media are much less interested in. The U.S. economy is apparently doing fairly well, but people don’t seem to be experiencing it that way, which may have something to do with the price of eggs and our contemporary society’s extreme inequality. And then there is our dysfunctional and self-destructive political system, which may provide some joy for late-night comedians but by any rational standard is certainly tragic for everyone else.


Saint Paul, of course, wasn’t sending the Thessalonians a feel-good Christmas card. In fact, Christmas cards did not exist in his time. Neither, for that matter, did Christmas, which we only started celebrating some two-to-three centuries later.


According to Acts, Paul came to Thessalonica - the capital and major port of the Roman province of Macedonia - around the year 50 (on his second missionary journey), and established a Christian congregation there.  His first letter to those Thessalonian Christians – 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 empty holiday greeting, but was for Paul the logical consequence of faith in Christ. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.


Put that way, what behavior but rejoicing and thanksgiving ought ever to characterize the lives of believers? What other possible response would proclaim Christ and his Church in a conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, which, without Christ, admittedly does present precious little reason for either rejoicing or thanksgiving? 

A world into which Christ has not come (or in which his coming is just not acknowledged) is indeed a ready recipe for a seriously conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, the kind of world we sadly see so much of. But therein lies the problem, of course, for we may all be spending too much of our time and expending most of our energy in that still so conflicted, anxiety-ridden world without Christ.       


How often do we hear for example, how “the holidays” may be the worst time of the year for some people, perhaps far too many people, including people we may personally know and love and care about? Talk about a conflicted, anxiety-ridden world without Christ! So absent has he become from so much of our bizarre modern life that even the celebration of his birth becomes, instead of news of great joy for all people, an occasion for stress and sadness for some!  


Christmas, of course, can have its poignant side. (After all these years, I still am tempted to tear up whenever I hear Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas). More pointedly, 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. The rejoicing to which Paul refers is not the transient happiness that depends on mere feelings and comes and goes according to shifting circumstances. It is, rather, a consequence of the experience of God’s presence and action regardless of circumstances, 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 injunction to test everything, for he well knew that not every random thought or 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 in this Sunday’s gospel account [John 1:6-8, 19-28]. John responded, first, by clarifying the scope of his activity – or, as we might say in our bureaucratized manner of speaking, 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 a real 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.

Photo: The Advent Wreath at the Paulist Fathers' Mother Church, Saint Paul the Apostle, NY.

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