The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday”. The name refers to the opening of the Entrance Antiphon for the day.:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near. -Philippians 4:4, 5b
(Quick liturgy lesson: for every Sunday the church has assigned a brief text (antiphon) to be sung at the beginning of the liturgy. We always have the option of singing “another suitable song”, and for various historical and pastoral reasons, this parish generally chooses the latter option.)
What are we to make of this command to rejoice? Is this more of the “forced fun” that we associate with corporate Christmas parties and the dreaded forays to the mall? Are we rejoicing because it’s almost Christmas, even though that means we’re stressed about preparations and that much closer to the post-holiday let-down? Are we joyful because we’re halfway through a dreary church season when we’re “not allowed” to sing Christmas music?
In his letter to Philippi, Paul doesn’t tell us to “Rejoice on the third Sunday of Advent”. He tells to rejoice always. The Advent season is simply our yearly reminder to view our complicated and troubled world with hope – always. And one way of doing that is to remind ourselves of the joy living at the heart of our faith. “Do not forget joy!”, says Pope Francis.
But joy isn’t always easy. It takes patience and strength to remind ourselves of joy when distractions are all around. In the words of the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen:
“Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away... Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God's love for us... Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Happiness and Holly Jolly Christmases are dependent on external good fortune, but true joy is a deep well inside of us. In the recent parenting book, All Joy and No Fun, author Jennifer Senior discusses the difficulties that modern parents have when they’re overwhelmed by immediate challenges and lose sight of the rich and lasting joy at the center of their love. She suggests that we strike a balance between the “experiencing self” absorbed in the details of daily life and our “remembering self” which is the realm of meaning and joy.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.
This week, we will once again sing the classic Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. You can read about the song’s long and fascinating history here. Suffice it to say that it’s an old French processional tune with a text loosely based on Advent antiphons (there’s that word again). For now let’s just focus on the refrain:
The word “rejoice” in the English version of the hymn has some extra layers of meaning not found in the original Latin. Derived from French, the second half of the word (-joice) refers to joy. But the first half (re-) is an intensifier, a re-inforcing of the joy. It can also have the meaning of doing something again: re-turning, re-making, re-calling. Maybe as we sing the word, we can have that in mind. Re-turn to the joy at each re-peat of the word.
Re-joice! (again I say) Re-joice!
Remember that Emmanuel, God-with-us, returns to Israel -- in other words, to all of God’s beloved people. When we sing “Rejoice” twice in a row, we have two opportunities to turn around from distractions and to recall the joy at the center of our existence.