Advent Readings: Gaudete! Rejoice!

“Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say rejoice!” (Phil 4:4). Reading or hearing these words of St. Paul always make me recall the simple musical round that was popular a few decades ago (composed by whom? when?).  It almost automatically brings a smile to my face and makes me want to break into song—which I sometimes do, even if I’m in the middle of giving a lecture or teaching a class!<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

While giving an Advent retreat last weekend, I asked the participants to try to frown, feel sad, or be angry as they sang this song. They just couldn’t do it!  But after singing this round a few times with gusto, they were all smiling more broadly and said that they felt much better and happier, almost instantly!

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Can you feel my joy and share my enthusiasm, just by reading the above words? Can you imagine how joyful Paul himself must have felt when he wrote those words to the Christian community in ancient <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say rejoice!”  Why should they?  Paul goes on to give his reason: “The Lord is near” (4:5b).  For centuries, this scriptural quotation has been used as the Entrance Antiphon for the Mass of the Third Sunday of Advent, giving rise not only to the traditional title for this day (Gaudete Sunday), but also to the traditions of using brighter rose-colored candles and vestments, in contrast to the darker purples of the rest of Advent.

Although “joy” is probably not the first word that comes to mind when we think of Paul of Tarsus (given his heavy-duty theology and demanding ethics), words like joy, joyful, rejoice, praise, glory, glorify, exult, be glad, magnify, etc., do occur quite frequently in Paul’s letters. Many passages from the prophetic books of the OT are similarly full of joy and rejoicing, esp. the first reading for the Third Sunday of Advent (Isa 25:1-6a, 10).

In the rest of the New Testament, joy is obviously a very common theme throughout Luke and Acts (but surprisingly rare in Mark or Matthew). On the other hand, it is also a key theme (albeit often overlooked) in John’s Gospel and Epistles, appearing prominently in such passages as the Last Supper Discourse (John 14:28; 15:11; 16:20-24), and in the chiastic middle of Jesus’ long prayer to his Father (17:13).

Joy is probably one of the most important, but also most neglected, of Christian virtues. This may be especially true for Catholics (with the exception of Charismatics). We so frequently pray “Lord, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!” and we hear about the burdens and sacrifices demanded of the Christian life (“Take up your cross and follow me”!), that we sometimes forget how being disciples of Jesus ought to bring us profound peace and great joy (even if we’re not singing or explicitly praising God all day long).

When talking about the Christian virtues, we tend to focus on faith, hope, and love, the great trio of “theological” virtues (esp. 1 Cor 13). As central as these are, the Advent readings draw our attention to some other important virtues, especially joy (Phil 4:4) and patience (esp. James 5:7-10, today’s second reading).

So, as we continue through the Third Sunday of Advent and draw closer to our celebration of Christmas, let’s not only look forward to singing “Joy to the World” on Christmas Day, but let’s also remember Paul’s exhortation to “Rejoice in the Lord always!”

Felix Just, S.J.

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