Gaudete in a Time of Pandemic
Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent
On this third Sunday of the new liturgical year, more than halfway on our journey to Christmas — to the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ — the Church offers us the opportunity to exchange the violet of Advent for the rose of Gaudete Sunday, and calls us to rejoice.
Rejoice in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah in the first reading: “I rejoice heartily in the LORD; in my God is the joy of my soul.”
Rejoice in the spirit of our Blessed Mother in the Magnificat, from which our responsorial psalm today is taken: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Those words — “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” — aren’t just for one day, but for every day of the Church year. Literally, 365 days a year, the Church prescribes the words of our Lady’s Magnificat in the Liturgy of the Hours, in Evening Prayer, prayed every single day by priests, bishops, deacons, religious, and countless lay Catholics all over the world.
Every single day. Even Good Friday! “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
“Rejoice always,” St. Paul tells us in the second reading. “Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
It’s God’s will for you in Christ Jesus to give thanks in all circumstances, to pray without ceasing, and to rejoice always! Tomorrow we go back to violet, and it’s going to stay violet until Christmas Eve. But it’s God’s will for you to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, to give thanks in all circumstances.
When Circumstances Don’t Cooperate
“In all circumstances” is important, because circumstances don’t always cooperate. It feels like this past year in particular — this calendar year now drawing to a close, the year of our Lord 2020 — circumstances have been particularly uncooperative.
For many of us this has been a year of trial, perhaps trauma. Most obviously, perhaps, the coronavirus pandemic, which wrought havoc all over the globe and struck so many of our families and loved ones, in some cases resulting in hospitalizations or lingering symptoms, and even deaths.
Along with the pandemic itself, the lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and social distancing disrupted our lives in countless ways. Lost work, lost income. So many things that didn’t happen: special occasions, visits with family and friends. Our churches closed for Holy Week and the Easter season. Remember how it felt for a long time like Lent would never end?
And the list goes on. Natural disasters and extreme weather — wildfires, earthquakes, so many hurricanes and storms we exhausted the alphabet and needed nine Greek letters for the first time ever. Back in August many of us were without power for days or weeks.
The names George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among too many others, are still like open wounds to many.
And if you’re still feeling particularly stressed over the election — you’re not alone. “Election Stress Disorder” is a thing, and it’s been particularly acute this year.
And it’s not over! We all hope for better things in 2021, but daily coronavirus deaths are at record highs right now, and, tragically, that’s not going to change until well into the New Year. In fact it’s probably going to be worse than ever in January thanks to Christmas and New Year’s traveling and socializing.
Am I depressing you? Today is about joy! But what is joy? Where do we find it?
Do you know the story about Saint Francis of Assisi and his secretary, Brother Leo, discussing true joy?
One day Francis called his secretary, Brother Leo, and said, “Write down what true joy is. Suppose we learn that bishops and kings all over the world are entering the Franciscan order. Suppose the brothers go out into all the world and convert all the nonbelievers. Suppose God gives me the power to heal the sick and perform miracles. None of these things would be true joy.”
This is like what Saint Paul says in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 13, the great love chapter: If I have all kinds of spiritual gifts — if I can speak in tongues and prophesy and do miracles — and if I sell everything I have to give to the poor and even if I die a martyr’s death, but have not love, it’s all meaningless.
So Brother Leo asked, “Then what is true joy?”
And Francis answered, “Suppose I’ve been out on the road in winter in the dead of night. I’m muddy, I’m freezing; icicles on my habit are cutting me, making me bleed. And when I arrive and knock at the gate, they don’t recognize me and leave me out in the cold. If I have patience and don’t get upset, that is true joy and virtue and the salvation of my soul.”
Joy and the Theological Virtues
What is joy? Where do we find it? Not in suffering itself, but in the inner peace of embracing God’s will in all circumstances. The peace that comes through faith, hope, and love, the theological virtues that connect us to God.
True joy depends on faith, on trusting that we are made for joy, that the Lord created us not to be miserable but to be truly happy in him, perfectly in the life to come, but in this life also.
Joy depends on hope, even in times of trial and difficulty, that the Lord is with us in our sufferings, and never more than when we suffer, never more than when things are hard.
Joy depends on love, on knowing that we are loved beyond imagining and comprehension, that the Creator of the universe loves each one of us, that it is good in his eyes that you exist.
None of this means that we shouldn’t take joy in the pleasures of life: in being warm, comfortable, well fed, happy, and loved. Whenever and wherever we can find them, these pleasures are gifts from God, and we’re meant to enjoy them. We should seek them. We should pray for them.
But the source of true joy is not any of God’s gifts, but God himself, and that’s a lesson that we true learn not when things are easy, but when they’re hard — when we take up the crosses that fall to us and follow Jesus, making his words the prayer of our heart: “Thy will be done.”
In All Circumstances
I think of this in connection with two passages of scripture that come up regularly in the Liturgy of the Hours.
The first is from Psalm 44:
Let our sons then flourish like saplings,
grown tall and strong from their youth;
our daughters graceful as columns,
as though they were carved for a palace.
Let our barns be filled to overflowing
with crops of every kind;
our sheep increasing by thousands,
tens of thousands in our fields,
our cattle heavy with young.
No ruined wall, no exile,
no sound of weeping in our streets.
Happy the people of whom this is true;
Happy the people whose God is the Lord!
Doesn’t that sound good? We hope for that. We pray for that! I hope we get some more of that in 2021.
But there’s another passage that’s just as important, if not more so. It’s from the prophet Habakkuk:
For though the fig tree blossom not
nor fruit be on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive fail
and the terraces produce no nourishment,
Though the flocks disappear from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
Yet will I rejoice in the Lord
and exult in my saving God.
I don’t mind admitting this is hard for me. I’m a count-your-blessings kind of guy — I like it when things go well! But I also know that if we can’t rejoice in the Lord in the worst of times, then our joy in the best of times is not true joy.
Sharing God’s Joy
We rejoice today, on Gaudete Sunday, not only in anticipation of the joy of Christmas, but in the perennial joy of the Incarnation itself and of the Paschal Mystery.
Rejoice! God has come to Earth as one of us.
Rejoice! God has suffered and died for us.
Rejoice! God has overcome for us not only death, but viruses and pandemics, political agendas and machinations, financial and employment woes, natural disasters and extreme weather, violence and racism … tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword. None of these has the final word!
Rejoice! God shares with us the fruits of his sacrifice and victory in the Eucharistic celebration. And he invites us to share his victory, his love, his joy, with one another. It’s in sharing his love and joy with one another that our joy is truly made complete.
Do you want to draw closer to God, the source of all joy? Do you want to know his peace and joy in your heart? If we’ve struggled this year, let’s recognize that others all around us are struggling too. Can we help to carry their burdens?
It could be something as simple as responding to an angry, impatient word with a patient, understanding one … or making a phone call or sending a text message to someone whom we know is isolated and perhaps sad or depressed.
It’s in potentially small acts like this that we have the opportunity to draw closer to God and learn for ourselves the truth of St. Francis’ words that “It is in giving that we receive.”