Gaudete Sunday: Find your joy in the Lord

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3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B: Dec. 11, 2011
Isa 61:1-2, 10-11; Luke 1; 1 Thess 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

John the Baptist is one of the great figures of the Advent season. For during this season we look toward Christ’s Second Coming; and who better to help us prepare for that than John the Baptist, who helped the people of the first century prepare for Christ’s first coming. And how did he do that? He preached repentance—change; a turning away from sinful thoughts and attitudes and actions inside and sinful actions outside—to prepare the way of the Lord.

But it wasn’t just in his words and his action of baptizing that John prepared for the Lord. He also did so by who he was. In his person, he was the “precursor of the Lord,” the “forerunner of the Lord.” And this passage that we hear in our Gospel reading today, from the Gospel according to John (the Evangelist), helps to focus our attention. For we hear John the Baptist being asked these probing, existential questions of identity.

  • Who are you?
  • What are you?
  • What do you have to say for yourself?

And John is clear about who he is and who he is not. No, he is not the Prophet that Moses spoke of. No, he is not Elijah come back. No, he is not the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. He is, instead, the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord. He is, as he will say a couple chapters later (John 3:29), not the bridegroom but the friend of the bridegroom, who rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.

How hard is that?—for John to keep such a firm grasp on who he is? How hard is it, when he was constantly barraged by hostile questions—and eventually imprisoned and beheaded—to stay on message and not give up? Yet, how hard is it, when he has crowds flocking to him and one person after another asking, “Are you the Christ? Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?”—not to say, “You know, I think I am the Christ we’ve been waiting for! I think it must be me!”  But John didn’t do that. He was neither pushed nor pulled off his sense of who he was and what he was about.

Why not? What was John’s secret?  I think the answer is to be found in that word that word that gives this Sunday its name and its theme: Joy. Rejoicing.

When I went to look at where there words appear in the New Testament—chara, joy; chairō, rejoice—I noticed that they are always a response to something. Something arrives—some event, some news, some new knowledge or change—and we respond—in sorrow, or in joy, or in some other way. And yet we hear St. Paul write to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always.” How is that possible? If joy is a response, then, unless everything in our lives suddenly starts going perfectly, how can we rejoice always?

But the answer is to be found in the phrase we so often hear. At the beginning of Mass, I spoke the entrance antiphon that is taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” “Rejoice in the Lord.”

  • It’s what we hear in the first reading from Isaiah: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.”
  • It’s what Mary sang in her Magnificat, which we used as our psalm today: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
  • And it is what John the Baptist says: “The friend of the bridegroom… rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full.”

If we rejoice in the Lord—if we find our joy in him—then we can rejoice always. Then we can have as firm a grasp on our identity and our purpose as John the Baptist, and be so solidly anchored that we are not pushed or pulled off of it. But how can we get there? How can we come to truly rejoice in the Lord?

Thirty years ago, the theologian Karl Rahner wrote: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” And he explained that he meant by this “a genuine experience of God emerging from the heart of our existence.” “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.”

What John had; what Mary had; what St. Paul had—this direct knowledge, the personal relationship and experience, this joy—we also must have.

Let me tell you about how I found that joy. Many of you know that I was raised actively Protestant. And then I had my years of doubting and questioning; and I pushed through them. And I found the Catholic Church and the sacraments. And I sensed that I should become a priest and I began seminary. But it was in the summer after my second year of seminary that I was sent to a summer spirituality program—and the highlight of that program is the 8-day silent retreat that comes right near the beginning. Each day of that retreat—besides Mass and conferences and meeting with a spiritual director—I was to spend four 1-hour periods in prayer.

What happened during those 8 days was that I fell in love—with the Lord. Now, during the years before this, there had been many times when I had been interested in women romantically; and some times when a woman was interested in me—but never mutually. For the first time, I experienced what it was to receive the Lord’s love for me—very personally, very tender, very lavish—to receive that, and to respond, and to experience the communication that that opened up. And one effect of that was that the entire world changed for me. It came alive. And aspects that I never thought could be real—could only be the stuff of fantasy or myth, of fiction—turned out to be real. The world changed; my life changed.

And this, I think, is what it means to rejoice in the Lord. So that, whatever events happen, good or bad—if we know him—who he is, what he is doing in us and in the world—he becomes our source of joy.

But it is not a onetime event. My joy in the Lord can get muted, can get piled over by all the day-to-day events of life if I allow it to. And how do I find that that joy again?

  • First, the sacrament of confession. Because I find that going to this sacrament always restores my consciousness of being united with him, rather than separated: embraced, together with him.
  • And second, taking time for prayer. He is always there, waiting; if I will take the time to sit in his light and be with him again, he will give me his peace, and joy in him, in the midst of whatever else is happening.

So I can only urge you to find what I have found. Find the joy of the Lord: find him in confession; find him in prayer. As the Lord was there for John, and for Mary, and for St. Paul, so he is there waiting for you.

Right after the first reading, we read in the book of Isaiah:

“You shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord. You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem held by your God. No more shall men call you ‘Forsaken,’ or your land ‘Desolate,’ but you shall be called ‘My Delight’ … for the Lord delights in you.” (Isa 62:2-4)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.

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