Sunday, December 14, 2014

The One Reason to Rejoice Always

(Third Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 14, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; Luke 1: 46-55.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Advent 2014]


It’s a command that can be very hard to follow, even if we really want to.

Today is known as “Gaudete Sunday”.  It’s the Sunday when we light the third candle—the pink one—on our Advent wreath, signifying that the season is now more than half over and that Christmas is fast approaching.

And so the Church tells us to do what St. Paul tells us to do in that text we just heard from 1 Thessalonians 5.  The Church tells us to REJOICE!  In fact, she not only tells us to do that, she COMMANDS US to do it!  “Gaudere” in Latin is the verb that means “to rejoice,” but “gaudete” is the imperative plural form of the verb—which means it’s a command!  It’s a command that’s being given to you, to me—to all of us—and to every single human person on planet earth.


Which is why I said what I said at the beginning of my homily: It’s a command that can be very hard to follow, even if we really want to.

Because we can always find a reason NOT to rejoice!  Even if we’re relatively happy and content with the way things are going in our life right now, there will always be some reason for us not to rejoice.  It might be something we’re personally experiencing which is pulling us down emotionally; it might be something negative that somebody else is experiencing.  Think of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that occurred two years ago this week.  Most of us didn’t know any of the victims or their relatives, and yet I dare say that all of us were deeply affected by the tragedy.

How could we not be?

As I see it, there are two major categories of reasons for us not to rejoice.  The first is the general state of the world; the second is the particular state of our world.

The general state of the world is determined by the kinds of things we read about in the newspaper every day: the murders of innocent people—like those that took place in Newtown; the rioting; the terrorism; the wars; the greed; the abuse of various kinds.

You get the picture.

The particular state of our world is determined by what we are experiencing in our life at the present time, or by events in our past that are still troubling us today.

For example, some of you have lost loved ones suddenly and tragically—for some of you that’s happened in the recent past.  Some of you have lost your jobs recently; some of you have been diagnosed with a serious illness recently; some of you have relatives or friends who are going through difficult times.

The possibilities, unfortunately, are almost endless.

And this why it can be hard to rejoice—especially around Christmas, when the general perception is that everyone around us IS filled with joy!

That, by the way, is a false perception—everyone out there is NOT filled with joy!  But, because of all the decorations and music and parties at this time of year, that’s the way it can appear to be.

So what’s the answer?  Is it possible to fulfill that command to rejoice even when bad things are happening in the world out there and in our own little world in here?

The answer, I’m happy to say, is yes!  Yes, it’s possible to “gaudete”—to rejoice—in times of suffering.  Yes, it’s possible to rejoice in times of trial.  Yes, it’s possible to rejoice even in the worst of circumstances!
It’s possible because, in the midst of all the reasons—all the many reasons—that each of us has NOT to rejoice, there is always one reason for us TO rejoice.


First of all, let me make the necessary distinction between “feeling joy” and “rejoicing.”  Feeling joy is an emotional response to something that pleases us.  Children, for example, will see their presents under the tree on Christmas morning and they will feel joy.  That will happen quite naturally.  And if they’ve been particularly good during the previous 12 months, they will feel a lot of joy!

Rejoicing is different—very different.  Biblically speaking, rejoicing is not an emotion or an emotional response to something that we find attractive or pleasing.  Rejoicing in the Bible is an act of the will.  It’s a conscious and deliberate decision: a conscious and deliberate decision to praise and glorify God regardless of what we happen to be dealing with at the present time.

And it’s a decision which is made on the basis of things that we know to be true.

I don’t always “feel joy.”  Neither do you, and neither does anybody else.  But even when I’m not feeling joy I can still make the conscious and deliberate decision to rejoice, based on what I know, by faith, to be true.
And there we have the key to it all.  If I want to be able to rejoice on the third Sunday of Advent (and on every other day of the year), I have to make the effort—the conscious and deliberate effort—TO LOOK BEYOND all the reasons that I have not to rejoice, and then focus my attention on those things that my faith tells me are true.

For example …

I need to focus my attention on the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord.

I need to focus my attention on the fact that Jesus loves me with an unconditional love even when I fail him.

I need to focus my attention on the fact that Jesus is with me always and that he will never allow me to be tested beyond my strength.

I need to focus my attention on the fact that Jesus will always forgive me if I repent—especially in the sacrament of Confession.

I need to focus my attention on the fact that everything—including my sufferings—will work for my ultimate good if I love the Lord and stay close to him.

If my mind and my heart are focused on truths like those (and not on all the reasons that I have to be sad and depressed), then I can rejoice, and I can rejoice ALWAYS (as St. Paul says I should).

Here Mary, our Blessed Mother, is a great example for us.  How providential it was that today’s responsorial psalm wasn’t a psalm at all!

Did you notice that?  In between the first and second readings at Sunday Mass we normally hear one of the 150 Old Testament psalms (or at least part of one of the psalms).  But today was different.  Today, in place of a psalm, we heard a brief excerpt from our Blessed Mother’s Magnificat.  (That was the beautiful prayer she said when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  The prayer is found in the gospel of Luke, chapter 1).

Mary, like the rest of us, had many reasons not to rejoice: she was poor; she and her people were being oppressed by the pagan Romans; she lived in a violent and dangerous period of human history.  Death, literally, was all around her.


Listen again to her words:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …
[Notice she does not say, “I feel joy”; she says “my spirit REJOICES in God my Savior” …
She then lists some of the things that she knew, by faith, to be true.  She says …]
The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.

In the midst of all the reasons that she had not to rejoice, Mary found—and Mary consciously and deliberately focused on—the one reason she had to rejoice always: GOD, and all the great things he had done for her and for her people.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, that we will follow your example, not only during these days before Christmas, but throughout the entire year.  Amen.