By Allison Stuesse
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” St. Paul exhorts the Philippians. Something about the tone in this verse reminds me of a parent saying, “Do I have to say it to you again?” as they try to teach their child some particular lesson he/she is just not getting. In this case, the lesson is joy, and it is what we are asked to practice this upcoming week of Advent.
The Third Sunday of Advent is distinguished by the rose-colored candle that symbolizes joy. Purple, the color of the other three candles, is liturgically a somber color representing repentance and humility. Rose is meant to convey a lightening of that solemn tone (literally a lighter shade of purple). We are moving closer to Christmas and have reason to start getting more excited. Therefore, the Church affectionately nicknames today as “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is the command form of the Latin verb “guadere,” therefore translating “rejoice!” or “have joy!”
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with a command to have joy. How can I have joy when I am frustrated and burnt out? How can I rejoice in the Lord when I don’t feel like coming to prayer? Yet we find all throughout our readings today these imperatives: exalt, be glad, sing joyfully. St. Paul even says we must rejoice always. To try to be joyful always can feel fake. True joy seems unattainable most of the time because, quite frankly, in our sin and weakness we cannot rejoice in the Lord. However, that’s where we are missing half of the reality of joy.
Read to the end of the first reading from Zephaniah. Now re-read the verse that says, “The Lord, your God is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness.” That’s right, the God of the universe rejoices over you. He is in your midst, with you, near you, in you, at all times having joy because of you. This is the first and more important, often missed, step in practicing joy: to experience the Lord rejoicing over you.
In fact, we cannot have one without the other: God rejoicing over us and we rejoicing in God. The two go hand-in-hand to practice authentic joy. However, I think so often we focus on ourselves having joy in God that we forget He already delights in us. And He always will, whether we feel good or not, and even if we sin and turn away from Him. That is why joy is always available to us.
I like to think of the image of Mary pregnant with Jesus. I bet there were days when she felt sick and tired or had difficulty feeling joy that Jesus was within her. Yet she could not deny He was always with her (literally, physically inside of her), and in this was her joy. It is pregnant Mary who gives us one of the greatest songs of rejoicing of all time: the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).
As strange as it sounds, during Advent we are all like Mary pregnant with Jesus. He resides in us and rejoices in us and because of that we can sing our own Magnificat. And really, while Advent is waiting and preparing for Christmas, it is also meant to be the micro version of waiting and preparing on earth for our final meeting with Jesus in Heaven. Although we cannot see Him, we can have joy in the assurance He is within us, always rejoicing over us.
This Advent season, let us rejoice in the Lord for no other reason than that He first rejoices in us.