I went to mass yesterday, as most Catholics do (hopefully), and realized very quickly that it was Gaudete Sunday. We become accustomed to the deep green, dazzling white, or even the royal purple vestments that a priest normally wears, but Gaudete Sunday is different. The center aisle during the procession becomes a fashion statement where the priests and deacons arrive wearing power pink chasubles. This is the only time a year when the Church decides to make such a statement, so what makes this third week of Advent so special?
JOY! That’s what makes this Sunday so special! The Church focuses on joy for the third week of advent. I immediately became happier knowing that this mass was focused on joy. The first and second readings were uplifting and joyful. The Psalm tells us to shout with joy and gladness. All was so uplifting until we reached the gospel:
The crowds asked John the Baptist, “What should we do?” He said to them in reply, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Exhorting them in many other ways,
he preached good news to the people. – (Luke 3:10-18)
Is this joyful? Is this the most joyful reading we could find for our one power pink Sunday? I understand that the whole gospel is joyful but couldn’t we have read something that didn’t mention the unquenchable fires of hell? The rest of mass and the rest of the day I was asking God, What is joy and what makes this gospel reading so joyful?
Joy is often represented as a feeling or emotion in our culture. It is something that we cannot control and has its cause in something external. However, when we read scripture and look at the tradition of joy, we find that it is not represented in this way at all. We are told to in the second reading to rejoice always and, in the first reading, to sing joyfully. They both represent joy as something controllable. The Catechism of the Catholic Church groups joy with other virtues such as patience, kindness, mercy, modesty, and self-control. This suggests that joy is something that we can both control and grow in. If joy is not a feeling or emotion, then what is it?
Joy is a virtue. Joy is something that we must foster, build, and strive for in our lives. In order to do that, we must establish the foundation of our joy. The first letter of St. Peter says, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Pt 3:15). I’ve always read this and thought that we can change the word “hope” for any virtue and come up with the same answer. We could substitute faith, charity, modesty, patience, or, in our case, joy. Always be ready to give an explanation for our joy. No matter which virtue you substitute, the answer is always the same and it comes from the very first paragraph of the Catechism:
“God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.” – (CCC 1)
The foundation of our joy is exactly what is above; there is an infinite God who loves us and wants to unite us to his blessed life. By remembering those words and focusing on them we can foster joy at all times regardless of our circumstance or emotion. Joy is a virtue so it can co-exist with all emotions, even sadness. It is within our control and when we realize this, it becomes something so much deeper than happiness. Joy is the recognition that there is a God who longs for communion with us more than we long for it ourselves. A God who wants us to be fulfilled more than we want it ourselves. A God who promises us a purpose that stretches beyond our successes and failures of this life. Thus, we must focus on this foundational truth in order to live a life of joy.
This brings us back to our gospel reading from last Sunday. John the Baptist exhorts all that question him to detach themselves from some type of worldly possession. Whether it be clothing, money, or power, he tells them all to part from these worldly things to prepare their heart for the coming of Christ. He challenges them to quit being distracted by their lives and focus on the reason for their joy: God drawing close to man by the coming of their Savior. Worldly detachment lies at the feet of joy. We grow in joy by focusing on what is important and detaching from what is not. The power pink is more than just a fashion statement…it calls our attention to joy as a centerpiece of Christian life. This Christmas, may we all be prepared to give the reason for our joy.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us.
Photo Credit: Southend Museums Service