Opening the Word: Cause for rejoicing

Gaudete Sunday is a day of joy and rejoicing (the Latin word for “rejoice” is gaudere), offering an even more heightened sense of promise and anticipation as Christmas approaches. This third Sunday of Advent, observed Msgr. Ronald Knox, “interrupts us when we are all telling one another that the world is dust and ashes, the ante-room of eternity. Joy is woven into the pattern as well as sorrow; to rejoice is more than a grudging permission; it is, at times, a sort of Christian duty.” 

There is a temptation to associate joy solely with our emotions. But joy goes deeper. It is the response of our heart, mind and soul to the grace of God, the recognition of his saving power, mercy and love. In the opening chapter of Luke, the Blessed Virgin Mary says, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.” This echoes the joyful song of Hannah, who said, “My heart exults in the Lord, my horn is exalted by my God,” after having dedicated her son Samuel to the Lord (1 Sm 1:27-2:1). The “spirit” is the very principle of life, and here it likely emphasizes the rational, contemplative mind. 

In short, to rejoice is to recognize and embrace the truth about God’s work. Thus, St. Paul told the Christians at Thessalonica, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.” But how can we always be joyful and never stop praying? By recognizing that being a Christian does not require us to feel a certain way at all times, but to think with the mind of Christ and obey the will of God. A husband and wife dedicated to their marriage do not attempt to maintain the emotions experienced on their honeymoon, but pursue an even deeper bond, rooted in a committed, willed love. 

Throughout Advent, two people are held up as examples of this faithful love. The first, of course, is John the Baptist, the focus of both last week’s and today’s Gospel readings. The emphasis in today’s reading from the opening chapter of the Gospel of John is on testimony, or witness.  

What does John the Baptist testify to? The person of Jesus Christ, described in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel as light: “to the light, so that all might believe through him.” The Apostle John had also witnessed the light of Christ. But John the Baptist had a most unique testimony, for he had recognized the Savior while both were still in the womb (Lk 1:41). He then gave witness not only by word but also by deed: first, through preaching and baptism, then through martyrdom (Mk 6:17-29). 

The second person, now emerging more fully in Advent readings, is the Mother of God. Her Magnificat is also a joyful expression of witness, the testimony of the perfect disciple: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Mary, wrote St. Bede, proclaimed both her humility and God’s holiness: “She demonstrates that in her own judgment she was indeed Christ’s humble handmaid, but with respect to heavenly grace she pronounces herself all at once lifted up and glorified to such a degree that rightly her preeminent blessedness would be marveled at by the voices of all nations.” 

This, then, is the source and focus of joy: God has come and is coming to save us from sin, despair and death. As St. Paul explained, God brings the gift of holiness, so that we may “entirely, spirit, soul and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of