The Antiphon for first Sunday of Advent is gorgeous: “Ad te levavi. To you I lift up my soul.” This is the very first prayer of Advent, marking it as a turn heavenward when we leave behind the cares of the previous year and orient ourselves directly towards Christ and his Kingdom.
The Antiphon for today’s Mass begins, “Gaudete in Domino semper. Rejoice in the Lord always.” This is a direct quote from St. Paul and the reason we call this Gaudete Sunday. The Antiphon is written in Latin, we translated it to English to sing it, and to make it more complicated, St. Paul wrote it in Greek. His word for rejoice is “chairete,” the exact same word that St. Gabriel uses to greet the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation when he says, “Joy to you, full of grace!”
Those verbs are all in the imperative form, meaning that St. Paul almost commands us to rejoice. Children, the imperative form is the word that you’re used to hearing from your parents: “Stop doing that right now,” “Straighten up or I’m sending you to live in a zoo,” that sort of thing. St. Paul uses it to impart his fatherly joy to us. When Gabriel says it to Mary, he offers it to her as a gift.
Joy is our birthright as children of God. It does not eliminate negative events, we need to be honest about that. God’s promise is not that we will never experience illness or have cash flow problems. He doesn’t promise we’ll always get the closest parking spot or never have periods of mourning or grief. His joy is actually bigger than that – it encompasses all of those things. Within God’s joy are all of the events of our lives, and whatever happens to us for good or bad is in his hands. With his joy, we can overcome any adversity.
I remember when I was a child, I was very morose. Morbid ruminations were sort of my specialty, and I would sit in my room and listen to REM and Bob Dylan and write horrible poetry. I haven’t even told you all about my goth phase yet when I painted my fingernails black – something to look forward to I guess – but I would get really down. My friends would get so frustrated that they would eventually just try to command me to be happier. It didn’t work because I’m stubborn, or I just enjoyed being weird, I don’t know, but it is true that joy can be a decision. We can choose it even when we don’t feel it.
There are hints in our readings about how to choose it. It’s not that hard, really. Be mindful of God’s mercy, that you are loved, that he is with you at every moment. Also, because we are created to connect with others, we are happier when we stop navel-gazing and consider how to help others. When you are depressed, directionless, unmotivated, do a simple act of love. Show someone kindness. The mystical theologian Pseudo-Dionysius says that the good is diffusive of itself, meaning that when we give away joy, not only do we create it for others, but we also find it returned to ourselves.
Bishop Robert Barron says, “God’s whole life is joy.” It is a letting go of ourselves, our seriousness, self-certainty, and anxieties. Joy almost seems unnecessary. It won’t add one dollar to your salary or get you that bigger house. It has nothing to do with basic, material survival, but that is why it is so precious. A life well-lived doesn’t proceed by necessity, and human beings are special because of how good we are at what is totally unnecessary. We are about more than mere survival. Think about it: We don’t eat nutritional soylent green bars for dinner. No, we make up a huge pizza with a massive number of meat-based toppings and we feast. I think we would all agree that our lives are defined not so much by career but by leisure time – watching the kids play sports, going to a movie, meeting a friend at the coffee shop, hanging out on the back deck.
Jesus comes to give us joy. That is his mission. Joy is at the center of the Christian life. We are baptized, St. John the Baptist says, by the Holy Spirit and fire, showing that from the very beginning the Christian life is one of superabundance.
The Mass itself is a good illustration of this. I could say the words of consecration very quickly and we could be done with it. Why all the prayers, the singing, the incense, the candles, the vestments, the decorations and statues? These might seem trivial, but in fact, there is an interior glow and force to the liturgy. It is a joyful, totally unnecessary lingering in the presence of God. It is a celebration. There is no real defense for our actions here at Mass except that, here, we reject the limitation of the human soul to industriousness and profit motives. Here, there is an overflow of grace, liberty, beauty, and holy joy.
St. Paul cautions us that anxiety is the thief of joy. Those cares and worries of everyday life can seep in and overwhelm us. It’s natural. We have responsibilities. Maybe the boss said something and it’s on your mind. School is stressful. Relationships have their ups and downs.
I know the sins of my heart, and if I ponder them even for a moment, anxiety naturally sets in. I feel like a hypocrite, an undeserving, ungrateful, and very lucky person. A true, honest inventory of the contents of our heart, the depths to which we can sink, the grudges we’re willing to enforce, the secret thoughts about other people, the faithlessness, it ought to rattle us to the core. It’s like a personal apocalypse, what future could I possibly have seeing the mess I have made of myself? And you see how the joy is all but gone now? There’s a narrow path we must walk. We must be honest with ourselves, yes, but the proper response to discovering our sins is not overwhelming guilt, but joy that we can seek God’s forgiveness and be set free.
Anxiety is a symptom of thinking that we are in charge of our own lives. We are not. Jesus is Lord of everything. Put him in charge and let him give you his joy.
GK Chesterton says that, “the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce… So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.” Our Lord is winnowing the wheat and clearing the threshing floor. It is time for us to start listening, and we will hear the heavens ring with angelic celebration. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says St. Paul. “Again I say, Rejoice!”