The 19th-century English poet Christina Rossetti had never heard of COVID-19, climate change or many of the woes that beset us in the bleak midwinter of 2020.
Yet, in her poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” she paints a Christmas scene that endures and brings an odd, consoling joy into these troubled times.
She sets the stage for Jesus’s appearance into our chaotic world with these sobering lines, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,/ Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.”
Not everyone celebrates Christmas in the middle of a hard winter, but for those in the Northern Hemisphere, there are Advent days when ice forms on window panes and chilly winds whip through sullen grey skies.
And for all of us, the challenges of this particular 2020 Advent can make life seem hard as stone.
Many have experienced the death of loved ones from COVID. Some of us are unemployed, face food insecurity or homelessness. Shelters are overflowing. Many will not travel to see loved ones this season.
Some ache to see new grandchildren they’ve never met or regret missing family weddings, funerals and reunions.
Into the midst of these dark times come the bright lights of Christmas and the beautiful celebration of Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of the Advent season.
Rose-colored vestments and a rose candle on the Advent wreath remind us that the very word Gaudete is our Advent command: Rejoice!
So how do we rejoice in this crazy world of 2020?
One fundamental lesson of the spiritual life is that joy and consolation are not predicated on possessions, wealth or the perfect situations that we dream of for our life. Those tidy Hallmark Christmases make good fictional stories and colorful advertisements, but they are far from the heart of the real Christmas story, the one that brings us joy and a peace “the world cannot give.”
The incarnation of Jesus into the world drives this point home. The Hebrew people were looking and hoping for a Savior, but the one they most often envisioned would come with power and majesty and entitlement.
Instead, the birth of Jesus happened in the most humble of circumstances. This is a powerful lesson for us about our own aspirations in life. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ first visitors were shepherds, a despised and denigrated group of laborers if ever there was one.
An exhausted Mary, who had gone through all the messiness and pain of human childbirth, probably greeted them with warmth.
And no doubt she was aware of the presence of angels that surrounded her labor and her child.
Sometimes we forget that we, too, are called to welcome the weary and be aware of the angels that surround our Advent and Christmas, no matter the circumstances.
On Gaudete Sunday, a reading from First Thessalonians instructs us: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks.”
Joy, peace, grace and consolation can come, and perhaps most usually come, in moments of quiet and thoughtfulness.
Maybe this Gaudete Sunday, and this strange year, is beckoning us to quiet down, do less, be more prayerful, take intentional time to count our blessings and give thanks for the fundamental things. Maybe we can find room to rejoice when we won’t be exhausted by constant parties, obligatory entertaining, harried travel, frenzied gift buying.
Will we miss some of it? Of course. But can we find joy in what Christ is offering us in this unique and unusual Advent of 2020? Yes.
Thessalonians tells us, pray constantly. Make time and space to pray. Count, each day, the things for which you are grateful. Call someone you love. Be intentionally joyful.
And spend some time with those shepherds. Jesus spent his entire life with those on the margins, so it was no accident that a group of sheep watchers got the first peek at God’s arrival.
It was a foretelling of the Savior who would befriend the sinner and tax collector, touch the leper, humiliate those who wanted to stone a woman accused of sin.
Spend prayer time embracing the marginalized. Be with those seeking asylum at our border who have been turned away without a hearing or separated from their children. Pray with those condemned to die on death row. Pray with the poor, the victimized, the lonely, the ill.
In Psalm 34, which we read during the Third Week of Advent, we are reminded that “the Lord hears the cry of the poor.” Place yourself with the poor and struggling.
In Rosetti’s poem, she shares a line both joyful and a good companion to prayer: “Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him.”
Here, we have the image of our Creator, so eager to join us in our humanity and our earthly struggle, that in the person of Jesus, God literally bursts the bounds of heaven to be with us in our lives. This is the incredible joy we feel on Gaudete Sunday.
This is our invitation to the kingdom of God, where shepherds and sinners are welcomed. This is the joy that spills into our current history.
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(Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.)