The third Sunday in Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday.” “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice,” and the service for this day traditionally began with singing a chant based on this passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (example: https://youtu.be/sTGik1NcTws). That’s also why the third candle in the Advent Wreath is typically colored pink for this Sunday, to indicate joy.
So … Rejoice, says Paul. Always. Rejoice! It’s a command. He didn’t say anything more sensitive like, “Wishing you the joy of the season.“ He said: just do it. Rejoice!
Now, how do YOU like that? I can’t speak for everybody, but I and lots of people I know don’t like to have our moods COMMANDED. So just a piece of advice here: if you’re in the habit of urging people to cheer up or to smile when they look down-and-out, try something else, like maybe offering just to listen to what’s troubling them. Just listen, don’t try to rescue. It does a world of good. That’s advice I of course frequently fail to follow, but only because I’m too stubborn to learn from experience.
Well, Paul is not following that advice, either. He clearly has not taken a course in basic counseling. He had the equivalent of a seminary education, but that course was not required in his day. He might have had trouble passing it. And, apparently, the people who came up with our church calendar over the centuries hadn’t taken that course either. No matter what’s happening in the news, no matter any personal turmoil that you are I might be undergoing these days, it’s time to put on those rose colored vestments. It’s time to hear St. Paul’s words: Rejoice! Always!
Are you fretting about the Omicron Variant? Rejoice! says Paul, Always! Are you exasperated by people’s refusal to take the steps necessary to get us through this pandemic? Rejoice! Always! Are you dismayed by people’s readiness to rely on an amateurish Google search instead of the careful advice of recognized experts? Rejoice! Always! Are you worried about paying bills with inflation on the rise? Rejoice! Always! Are you frightened by the rise of hatefulness in this country? Rejoice! Always! Are you dismayed by how resilient racism and white privilege turn out to be? Rejoice! Always! Have you lost your livelihood? Rejoice! Always! Have you lost someone dear? Rejoice! Always!
That’s Paul’s charge, like it or not. And a lot of us definitely DON’T like it. Where does he get off telling us to rejoice in the midst of all this? Where do we get off acting so cheery today in our rose-colored vestments?
Maybe it helps to know that when Paul was writing this he had every reason NOT to rejoice. He tells us he’s in prison (1:13, 17). He knows he might be killed (1:20). He reports that some of his coworkers are actually delighting in his imprisonment (1:17). He’s totally drained, “poured out as a libation” (2:17). And yet, repeatedly and inexplicably, he finds himself full of joy (1:18; 2:17). Obviously, this is the sort of joy that, like the peace of God, “surpasses all understanding” (4:7).
So maybe it does help to know that Paul is no Pollyanna. He is not cheerily and cluelessly singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” if you remember “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” He’s talking about something deeper, something happening around and within us that’s easy to miss.
After all, Paul himself found joy where he never would have looked for it, precisely because Paul found God where he never would have looked for God. (Or rather, the God he was NOT looking for found him!) For the rest of his life, he’s been captivated by his own awakening to the story of God’s very life being poured out as a libation in the life, death, and mysteriously risen life of Jesus (2:5-11). That story is beginning to overturn his very idea of God and of how God works. The God who lives as Jesus lives is not the all-controlling power but the all-undergoing power whose relentless love wins by refusing to be driven away even by rejection and execution. Paul has come to realize, “in fear and trembling,” that this all-undergoing power of God is inescapably at work in and around all of us (2:12-13). “The Lord is near.”
Joy, suffering, fear and trembling, peace—they all flow together in the incomprehensible intimacy of Immanuel (“God-with-us”). So when Paul says, “rejoice,” he’s not just talking about a passing mood. He’s urging us to open ourselves to the all-enlivening power already at work in us, not separate or aloof from the messiness and even devastation we might be undergoing, but relentlessly here, right now. It surpasses all understanding, but are we surprised? If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be God.
This joy, this peace, surpasses all understanding, not because it’s out of our reach, but because we are never out of its reach. It’s not a feeling we have to manufacture, but a forward-looking condition that’s relentlessly tugging us out of our passing feelings and moods. Paul isn’t telling us to MAKE it happen; it’s happening already. Paul’s charge is giving us permission to LET it happen, the way it happened, unlooked-for, in him. He’s confident that when he tells us to rejoice he’s helping us to open our eyes to what’s finally keeping us going in the first place, the one who drags us into inexplicable joy sooner or later.
Maybe that still sounds a bit like “fake it till you make it,” but Paul’s actually tunneling underneath that platitude to show us why it sometimes works—because in Christ’s Body God is intimately and relentlessly at work here and now, we’re not really faking it, even if at first it can feel as though we are.
So, light a rose-colored candle. Sing “Gaudete,” “Rejoice!” It’s not really faking it.
Well, that’s one way to read Paul. But maybe you’re still not feeling it. These days bring us SO many reasons NOT to feel it. Be assured: you are not alone, by any means.
Some of you here know me well enough and long enough to remember that less than a year after my ordination I found myself plunged into an overwhelming experience of loss worse than anything I had ever known. I’ll resist my inner narcissism and spare you the details. It lasted about eighteen months. It felt like forever.
Yet I still had to join in leading festivities like today, like Christmas, like Easter, like Pentecost, all the while having trouble seeing the world in anything but grayscale. I remember preaching at a diaconal ordination at the Cathedral, and, yes, loving every moment of it while it lasted, then driving home crying bitterly all the way.
I was forced to learn several crucial things about trying to live faithfully. I’ll mention only two.
One is that loss can be so overwhelming that nothing seems to help. I knew that intellectually of course, but now I had to go through it. You may know that people move on eventually, usually, but there’s no magic fix for you right now. You have to learn to live with being overwhelmed—for who knows how long?—before anything consistently changes.
The other is that, even so, participating in festivities like these was not pointless, not even then. It did help. It brought me fleeting moments when I could trust in a future that was taking its own good time to arrive. It helped. Admittedly, it still felt like using a Dixie cup to empty Eagle Creek. But the day finally did arrive when I could again see the world in vivid color, and these all too brief moments helped me hang on.
All of that is to acknowledge that you may not be feeling too rosy today, even though you managed to drag yourself here. Nobody’s asking you to snap out of it. You can’t, and you might feel worse if you try. And you know things about life that none of us can afford to ignore.
But all of us are still invited to participate in a festive moment in this somber season. It can help, even if it’s only a Dixie cup.
Nobody’s telling you to cheer up. Still, light a rose-colored candle. Sing “Gaudete,” “Rejoice!” It’s not really faking it. It can help us open our eyes to what’s finally keeping us going in the first place, the one who drags us into inexplicable joy, the peace that “surpasses all understanding,” sooner or later. “The Lord is near.”