Opening the Word: For all who seek joy

“Great joy,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “has in it the sense of immortality.” Joy, like love, hope and goodness, cannot be adequately explained through material processes. Joy is a gift pointing to a transcendent giver. That giver is the Lord, giver of both natural and supernatural life.

Gaudete Sunday is a day of joy and rejoicing (the Latin word for “rejoice” is gaudere ), and the readings reflect this theme. The reading from the prophet Zephaniah contains an exultant call for Israel to sing for joy. Why? Because the Lord had staved off judgment, rebuffed Israel’s enemies and stood as King and Savior in the midst of the chosen people.

The Psalm echoes the same: “Shout with exultation, O city of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel”(Is 12:6). And the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians has a hymnic quality: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4). The reason is due to the immediacy of God’s life-giving presence: “The Lord is near” (Phil 4:5).

The Gospel reading does not directly refer to joy, but anticipates, through the words of John the Baptist, the source of joy. The anticipation has two different but connected qualities. The first is external and focuses on the natural moral virtues; it is drawn out through the question asked by the crowds, tax collectors and soldiers: “What should we do?” John’s response is that they should act justly toward their neighbors.

Treating others with respect and acting with justice are, of course, virtuous actions. However, they are lacking to the degree they are solely human. The need for something more is hinted at in the raised expectations of the people, who “were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah” (Lk 3:15). Having recognized the need for natural goodness, they hunger for supernatural goodness, for the Christ. Having tasted the joy that comes from seeking the good for others, they wish to receive the joy that comes from the good given by God (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1804).

The relationship between the human and supernatural virtues is highlighted further in comparing the baptism of John the Baptist to the baptism of the Messiah. The first is an external sign, a washing of water symbolizing the desire for holiness. The second is an efficacious sign, a sacrament. “By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit,” explains the Catechism, the sacraments “make present efficaciously the grace that they signify” (No. 1084).

What about the fire? While water symbolizes life, “fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions” (No. 696). Both can destroy, but both are also necessary for life. In baptism, this life is supernatural, divine, Trinitarian. In baptism, original sin is destroyed and the soul is ignited with divine fire. Joined in the death of the Son (see Rom 6), those who are baptized are transformed by the Holy Spirit into sons of God.

Here is the source of our Advent joy. The season anticipates the celebration of Christ’s birth, but it also illuminates the purpose of the Incarnation: to remove judgment, destroy sin and death, and grant life-giving communion with God. “All seek joy,” said St. John Chrysostom, “but it is not found on earth.” It is found in the Son, who comes to earth to the crowds, tax collectors, soldiers and us. Great joy flows from immortality. Rejoice!

Carl E. Olson is the editor of