Gaudete Sunday: The Difference between Joy and Happiness
Advent used to be a lot like the season of Lent. It was a penitential time to prepare by fasting and self-sacrifice for the feast of Christ’s birth. Advent used to be longer, actually starting on the feast of St. Martin, November 11, and last until Christmas Day. The church shortened Advent to four weeks: the four Sundays before Christmas. Most no longer fast during this time (just think of all the Christmas parties during these weeks), but if we are more generous in our giving to the poor and most vulnerable, then we come close to the original spirit of Advent.
When the Church invites us to a penitential season like Advent or Lent, it always puts in a Sunday of respite from the rigors of the season. In Lent there is Laetare Sunday and in Advent there is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete Sunday means “rejoice” in Latin. All the scriptures for this Sunday point to the meaning of joy.
In Isaiah 61 we hear declared a year of Jubilee:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. . .
The poor, those in debt, and any downtrodden folks got a reprieve during the time of Jubilee. When Jesus entered the synagogue in Luke 4 he rolled the scroll to this text from Isaiah. What Jesus was saying by proclaiming this text was that he himself was Jubilee. Jesus is true freedom and reprieve for all who have been beaten down by the powers of this world. On the Cross, Jesus identified with all victims of power and prejudice in this world: past, present, and future.
The end of the First Letter to the Thessalonians leaves the recipients there with the admonition to
Rejoice, pray unceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.
.This admonition is raised by the writer to the level of “the Will of God." These words were directed to the Christian community in Thessalonika just twenty years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. By extension, thanks to the time machine miracle of scripture and liturgy, it is directed to us as well! It’s the earliest text we have in the New Testament. This is definitely a saying to put on our bathroom mirror to look at first every morning. Give thanks in all circumstances. Our world economics operates on a basis of scarcity. There’s not enough for everyone, sorry. But God’s economics operates on abundance. There’s plenty for everyone if we are willing to share
The theme of Joy is a little harder to see in the Gospel of John this morning. John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing at the river Jordan and is called aside and questioned by the priests and Levites. John declares that he is not the Messiah, but he is preparing people for his coming. The Messiah’s coming will bring Jubilee, but first the Messiah will have to suffer violence and undergo death on the Cross. (Christians have tried to make the violence of the Cross a unique, one of a kind event. God the Father was willing to let his Son die to save us, so, we reason, we sometimes have to be willing to let our sons and daughters die to save us. Jesus’ death on the Cross by the powers of his day was NOT unique, but like all other victims of violence down through time. When the world does violence and puts people to death it is exactly what happened to Jesus himself!)
This leads to the question of the day: What is the difference between joy and happiness? The theologian and spiritual director Henri Nouwen (He was my retreat master once) said:
While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.” Thus joy can be present even in the midst of sadness.
This has been one of my greatest convictions and it is always reinforced when we gather for the Holy Eucharist. The Bread we break is a Sacrament of Joy. Jesus Christ is present with us right here, right now.
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English, Anglican Communion) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.