“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
That iconic line from the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” seems pretty off-base just a little more than a week away from Christmas, doesn’t it? Stop and look around? There’s no time for that.
There’s shopping and wrapping to be done. The house has to be cleaned and Christmas cards have to be mailed. Cookies need to be baked, plated up and distributed. Who’s got time to stop or slow down?
Does any of this sound familiar? Unfortunately, it probably does for far too many of us. But, wait, isn’t this supposed to be a season of joy? After all, isn’t the whole purpose of this season to prepare for the amazing gift of the birth of Christ? Luckily, we have something that can get us back on track.
This week, we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Literally translated from Latin, the word “gaudete” means “rejoice.” And that message comes through loud and clear in this week’s readings.
This mid-Advent celebration offers us a short timeout to stop, catch our breath and refocus on the joy and purpose of the season. And if we didn’t notice the change in the Advent message this week, the rose-colored candle and vestments we see for this week only during Advent certainly provide a subtle stop — or at least a slowdown — sign for us.
The message of rejoice comes through loud and clear starting with this week’s first reading from the Book of Zephaniah. In fact, within the first three lines we hear the words “joy,” “joyful” and “glad.” And it doesn’t stop there, further encouraging us to “sing joyfully” and “be glad and exult with all your heart.”
The second reading from the Letter to the Philippians offers even more ways to embrace the joy of the season, instructing us that “your kindness should be known to all” and “have no anxiety at all.”
Great, you might be thinking, but the reality is that right now there are quite a few challenges to being joyful, of which the stress of the season is the least pressing. In fact, these days, joy or a cause for it sometimes seem to be in short supply.
Well, even then we are encouraged to remain in joy, says Pope Francis. In an Angelus address for Gaudete Sunday last year, he encouraged us to remain joyful “even when things do not go according to our desires. Anxieties, difficulties and sufferings permeate our lives, and so many times the reality around us seems to be inhospitable and arid, like the desert in which the voice of John the Baptist resounded, as the Gospel of today recalls.”
OK, so the message in the first two readings is clear that now is the time to focus on the joy of the season. But what does that even look like? Does it mean we have to walk around happy all the time?
In his book, “Here and Now,” renowned priest and author Henri Nouwen says, “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,” he says, “is essential to the spiritual life. Whatever we may think of or say about God, when we are not joyful, our thoughts and words cannot bear fruit. Jesus reveals to us God’s love so that his joy may become ours and that our joy may become complete. 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.”
Once we embrace that joy, the Gospel from Luke offers a ready-made plan for ways to share that joy with others, saying “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise (3:11).”
As Henri Nouwen says, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” Luckily, Gaudete Sunday provides us a perfect opportunity to do just that as we head toward the end of Advent, culminating in the perfect joy of Christ’s birth.
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(Hines-Brigger is co-executive editor of St. Anthony Messenger.)