What makes you happy? Where do you find your joy? In what do you rejoice? These are serious questions, and for many people today they are not easy to answer. Much in our culture promises joy but fails to deliver. According to the Bible, the origin and object of true joy is God.
The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, from gaudeo, one of the Latin words for “rejoice.” The title comes from the first word in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, “Rejoice (gaudete) in the Lord always.”
In the Old Testament reading for Gaudete Sunday, the prophet Zephaniah (seventh century B.C.) proclaims that God will show mercy to the faithful among his people and deliver them from the day of judgment and doom. He urges these people to shout for joy and to sing joyfully in response. The reason for their joy is that “the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.”
Today’s responsorial “psalm” is in fact a song of thanksgiving taken from Isaiah 12. Here the prophet bears witness that God is his savior, that his courage and strength come from the Lord and that therefore he is confident and unafraid. The focus of his joy is the presence of “the Holy One of Israel” at Mount Zion. Both Zephaniah and Isaiah proclaim that the real reason for joy is their experience of God’s presence in the midst of God’s people.
Today’s New Testament readings look to even greater occasions of joy in connection with the various comings (or advents) of Christ. In Luke 3, John the Baptist points forward to Jesus’ coming on the public stage as the one mightier than he is, as the one who will bring a baptism with the Holy Spirit and will represent a new phase in the full coming of God’s kingdom. In Philippians 3, Paul urges joy at the first coming of Christ (“rejoice in the Lord always”) and looks forward with joy to the second coming of Christ (“the Lord is near”). Here the origin and object of joy are found in God’s action for us through Jesus the Son of God.
Joy is an emotion evoked by good fortune, success or well being. But emotions need direction and follow-through, if they are not to pass as quickly as they come. Today’s New Testament readings remind us that the joy evoked by God’s presence in Christ demands a response. In the reading from Luke, John the Baptist urges various groups to put their joy at the coming kingdom of God into practice by sharing their possessions with others (the crowds) and by treating people fairly and honestly (tax collectors and soldiers). Paul urges his beloved Philippians to give thanks to God, to offer prayers and petitions to God and to find their peace and confidence in God. He reminds them that God’s peace, which surpasses human understanding, will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.