St. Josemaria Escriva once wrote, "I am every day more convinced that happiness in Heaven is for those who know how to be happy on earth." (The Forge, 1005)
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - We awakened this morning to hear, read and see the continuing tragic details coming out of Newtown, Connecticut. The sheer magnitude of the evil act which took the lives of innocent children and the hroes who tried to save then has stunned the Nation.
However, it has done something else.
It has made us stop to consider what really matters most in life. We have hugged our children, grandchildren, and one another more. We have openly reflected on spiritual issues, even in the media. This horrible tragedy has presented us with an existential moment, a moment for reflecting on the meaning of life and the source of happiness.
It is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Rejoicing in the Liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. What an interesting juxtaposition of experiences.
The older I get, the more I realize the meaning of this beautiful Sunday. Difficulties, stress, and even tragedy - experiences which at first glance seem to cause us to respond with anything but joy, can be transformed in the life of a believer and actually become its very source. In the Second Reading of the Liturgy, St. Paul tells the early Christians at Philippi:
"Brothers and sisters: Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. "(Phil. 4:4-7)
He gave the Thessalonians the same direction in his letter to them, "Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus." ( 1 Thes.5: 16 - 24) The pain, hurt, fear, worry, and that awful killer on the loose in our modern mania, stress, need not distract us from the source of true Joy, Jesus!
In times like this that I thank God for the great gift of the liturgical year. Our mother the Church invites us to enter into the deepest mysteries of the faith by living them liturgically. The Feasts we celebrate, and our preparation for them, are an invitation to participate, even now, in the life to come. So it is with Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing.
Christian joy is not rooted in the circumstances and struggles of our daily lives. Often, they are the bad fruit of the disorder and brokenness caused by sin. Christian Joy finds its root in the relationship we now have in and through Jesus Christ, with the Father, in the Holy Spirit.
We rejoice on Guadete Sunday, because the Lord is always near. One of the Psalms we regularly chant in the Liturgy of the Hours reminds us of the truth, "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted, saves those whose spirit is crushed. Many are the troubles of the just, but the LORD delivers from them all." (Psalm 34:19,20)
In a matter of days we will celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord. The Church as mother and teacher calls us on the third Sunday of Advent to pause from our Advent preparation. She summons us in the liturgy by using the imperative case to - "Rejoice!"
Bishops, priests and deacons have, up to this point, worn purple vestments symbolizing the penitential nature of our Advent preparation. On this Sunday they are replaced with vestments of a rose color, a color of joy.
The General Instructions for the Roman Missal (GIRM) explain the reasons for color of our vestments: "The purpose of a variety of color of the sacred vestments is to give effective expression even outwardly to the specific character of the mysteries of faith being celebrated and to a sense of Christian life's passage through the course of the liturgical year."
In our Old Testament reading from Zephaniah we meet the God who rejoices over us! "Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals." (Zeph 3)
As Christians we know that the Lord has come, in the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The Word has become flesh and He has dwelt among us (John 1). Life is forever changed and the world is being recreated in Him.
In just a few short days we will celebrate His Birth. However, on this day we pause to remember that He has come, He is coming and He will come again. This is where we find our Joy, in an encounter with Him. We who live our lives now in His Body, the Church, are the new Zion, freed from our bondage and called to rejoice!
Our Gospel passage, Luke 3: 10-18, points to our Advent teacher, John the Baptizer. He knows that the source of joy is Jesus Christ. He calls everyone who will listen to prepare the way for the Lord, in their hearts, their lives, their homes and their world. In both his preaching and his life witness he calls for a total reformation.
The point is an important one. Because the Lord is near we must live differently. The way of joy passes along the path of self emptying, the way of humility. The Baptizer reminds us that we must decrease so that we can be filled with Jesus, the source of all joy. The way to joy is through self emptying love.
This lifestyle change should characterize Christians. It is why, before they were called Christians, they were referred to as "the Way" (See, e.g., Acts 22:4). By living our lives "in the Lord" we can find the Joy proclaimed on this Gaudete Sunday. John told the crowds, "I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." (Luke 3) We have received that Baptism, and with it all the grace we need to respond to the invitation.
John's humility is the road on which we are invited to walk. He became a man of Joy because he was a man of humility! He understood the great truth presented to all of us in our Liturgy today. It wasn't all about him! It isn't all about us! John emptied himself - of himself - and thereby became one who could reveal Jesus to others. His humility opened a space within him for true joy, the kind which comes from the real presence of the Lord.
So it can be for each one of us. Living in the first home of the whole human race, his mother's womb, this last Prophet of the Old Testament and First Prophet of the New responded to the arrival of Jesus with a dance and just kept living in joy.
The Gospel account records the visit of Mary to Elizabeth: "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
"For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior." (Luke 1: 41-47)
Joy fills Elizabeth, inspires Mary to sing a canticle of praise and causes the child John to dance in the womb. Joy is a Person - named Jesus. When we encounter Him, we encounter Joy.
In the fourth Gospel, the theologian John records the Baptizer explaining the source of his supernatural joy, "The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease." (John 1:29 - 30)
As we walk through the remaining days of Advent, the two biblical persons held before us in our readings at Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours will be John the Baptizer and Mary. Mary's humility brought heaven to earth and earth to heaven.
Mary was a woman of deep joy because she became the habitation of happiness, the first living tabernacle. She overflows with Jesus and imparts joy to us all. We call her, among her many other wonderful titles, the "cause of our Joy". That is because she bore the One who is its source, Jesus Christ.
We can find this kind of joy, this genuine happiness, beginning today, no matter what our circumstances. The Apostle Paul lived an arduous life of discipleship. He suffered physically, relationally and spiritually. Yet, he too was a man of this kind of joy and we hear it in his admonitions to the early Church.
On this Gaudete Sunday let us embrace by grace the way of humility and find the happiness of heaven - beginning on earth. St. Josemaria Escriva, a Saint of our own time who teaches us that the universal call to holiness embraces every vocation and state in life, once wrote, "I am every day more convinced that happiness in Heaven is for those who know how to be happy on earth." (The Forge, 1005)
On this Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice!
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