Our continuing journey of Advent can seem so brief and it is hard to imagine that we will be celebrating the great feast of Christmas very soon. As we have seen over the first two weeks of Advent, our scripture readings give us markers or signs to guide us through this season and so to help us prepare for the coming of Jesus. So far we have had the two spiritual guides of “watching and waiting” and of “preparing a way for the Lord.”

Our sign post or guide for this third week is a simple and yet potentially quite difficult message: Rejoice, for the Lord is near! Today we celebrate what is sometimes called “Gaudete” or “rejoicing” Sunday, echoing the first words of the entrance antiphon for the Mass. We are asked to rejoice because the coming of our Lord and Savior is near. This theme of rejoicing is marked in our readings, as well as the prayers at Mass and in the option of having rose-colored vestments and Advent Wreath candles (rose being a mix of the purple of Advent and the white of Christmas).

The word “joy” occurs so many times in the Sacred Scriptures in both the Old and the New Testaments and yet it is not always an easy word to understand, yet alone to live. It can be hard to be joyful if we are experiencing loss, or hurt, or a crisis in our lives. We can think of all the recent natural disasters, and acts of violence and of terrorism here in the USA (and in so many other places, too) and, of course, the ongoing pandemic. Joy can also seem to be something fleeting or even superficial, or frustratingly elusive. With Christmas fast approaching, perhaps we are not feeling the joy of the coming season! So, when as Christians, we speak of joy (rather like other everyday words such as “love, peace or freedom”) we need to recall that the word has a very particular meaning.

The First Reading (Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11) continues our exploration of the second part of the Book of the prophet Isaiah. The prophet offers something of a poem about the joy of what things will be like when the Messiah comes. The passage should be familiar to us: it is the one that Jesus quotes when he begins his public ministry and mission (cf. Luke 4: 14-21). We rejoice then because Jesus fulfils this prophecy, even as we listen to it.  

Unusually, our psalm is not really a psalm this week: it is the “Magnificat” or Song of Mary. We use this song every time we pray Evening Prayer or Vespers. Mary too sings of her joy for all that God has done for her and for those who welcome God’s presence in their lives. Notice that Mary focuses not on herself, but rather on God. When we “magnify the Lord” rather than ourselves, this is when we experience a deep joy.

In our Second Reading (1 Thess. 5:16-24), St. Paul concludes his first letter to the early church community in Thessalonica (in Greece) with a dense package of advice on how to be joyful as Christians: pray, give thanks, do not suppress the spirit, listen, think and test things, do good and abstain from evil. These are all “joy-bringers,” rather than joy-killers! Notice here that these are both choices about how I might live my life, as well as gifts from God. We might say then that we do not so much attain joy, but rather we claim joy: it is a gift that we decide to choose.

We leave behind St. Mark’s Gospel this week and go instead to the prologue of St. John’s Gospel (John 1:6-8, 19-28). Again, this passage is something of a poem. It describes John’s whole mission: to be a witness to the light. John is often depicted as a rather severe and morose figure, but he must have experienced the immense joy and peace that can only be found when we follow and live God’s particular calling and mission for us. He is asked three questions about who he is and then about what he does; in other words, his mission and purpose in life. In answer, like Our Blessed Mother Mary, he does not proclaim or magnify himself, but rather Jesus.

So too with us. Our readings make it very clear that in the end, true joy is actually not all about me, nor does it depend on my circumstances. No! It is about following our calling from God and in being open to Christ growing in us. As Julian of Norwich wrote many centuries ago: “The greatest honor that you can give to God, greater than all your penances and sacrifices, is to live joyfully because of the knowledge of his love.”