What I love about the Advent season is that it captures the mixed reality of our lives. Our moments of joy and sorrow are often closely woven together. We lose a loved one in our family and soon after celebrate the birth of a newborn. We remain caught between longing for the more that God promises us and the joy that comes from knowing that God has already revealed his love for us in his only begotten Son.
The first half of Advent emphasizes our longing for the promised Messiah and our need to be prepared — as in this verse from the hymn “O Come, Divine Messiah” captures:
“O come, Divine Messiah,/ The world in silence waits the day/ When hope shall sing its triumph,/ And sadness flee away.”
This Sunday gets its name from the first Latin word in the entrance antiphon “Gaudete,” found in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice! … The Lord is near” (4:4, 5).
Paul wrote these words from prison. He was no naive optimist. He obviously knew real suffering. Despite the intense unhappiness of imprisonment, Paul was joyful anyway. The word appears more than 10 times in various forms throughout the short letter!
Sadly, as a cantor, I often found a tendency in most parishes to sing the joyful hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” so slowly that it sounded more like a dirge than a song of rejoicing. Isn’t the refrain: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel”? Each of the “O” antiphon verses of this hymn remind us of the promises already fulfilled in his coming. We should reflect this joy in how we sing it.
As a church, we have known great sorrows this year. We experienced our sinfulness revealed and our need for greater conversion. This Gaudete Sunday reminds us of a deeper reality of God’s love for us. We are called to accompany victims and their families toward Emmanuel’s healing presence. He has set his tent among us — in the midst of these sorrows.
Reflecting on his own experience of the commingling of joy and sorrow, priest and spiritual author Henri Nouwen wrote: “I remember the most painful times of my life as times in which
I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope. … Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
So today let us focus on choosing the deeper joy revealed in our readings and prayers. Now that we are at the halfway point of the Advent season, let us focus on how close we are to celebrate the One who came on the first Christmas and who will come again.
The excitement of how close we are to that celebration can no longer be held back. We choose to focus on the fact that our God has come, continues to show his unconditional love for us in the sacraments and offers food for the journey to the fullness of his kingdom yet to come.
Dudley, recently retired from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Catholic Education, consults on curriculum development, leadership and ministry formation through his company, Ambulans Vobiscum.