GSC 16th December 2018
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). This third Sunday in Advent, brothers and sisters, is all about rejoicing, in the midst of this season of penitence and fasting. Our Holy Mother the Church, like a tender human mother, lightens the burden for us today, and so we wear, not the violet of fasting, but a lighter shade, the rose of rejoicing. Even the name of this Sunday reminds us to rejoice, for today is “Gaudete Sunday,” from the first word of the Mass in Latin: Gaudete! – Rejoice!
But we must not think of Gaudete Sunday merely as a break from gloom and fasting, as though our Advent penances were some wearisome burden we’d all rather be free of. Indeed, Gaudete Sunday isn’t an encouragement to forget those disciplines of prayer and fasting, penitence and almsgiving, which we have hopefully taken up for Advent. We still do not sing the Gloria today. We are still preparing, as John the Baptist exhorts us to, for the coming of the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world. Indeed, this coming week, the week after the feast of S Lucy, is an Ember Week, when fasting is to be redoubled. And yet, we rejoice.
So too, in the Gospel we have heard, the same conflict: the Son of Man is to come, “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 in a fire that will never go out” (Luke 3:17). And yet this, we are told a sentence later, is the Good News which John is announcing to he people. So the same rejoicing which we are to make now, in this season of fasting and repentance, will be there too on the Day of Wrath, the Day of Christ Jesus, Judgment Day.
There is a great mystery in this: to fast joyfully, to rejoice in penitence, to rejoice at the Judgment. Today is the best day of the year to think about this collision, as it might seem, between bitterness and joy, terror and happiness. In Advent, the Church traditionally meditates on the Four Last Things, that is: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, as She prepares for the Second Coming of Her Saviour, the Lamb without spot, by remembering His First Coming, as a tiny child.
She does not do this because we Christians are ‘obsessed’ by death, or morbid, or miserable. That may be what the people beyond the walls of the Church think about us, but it is not so. I cannot be so. As the Holy Father Francis so rightly says, “The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” (Evangelii Gaudium). Far from being miserable and judgmental creatures brooding endlessly on death, Christians “are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.”
And yet we know from our own experience, don’t we, that Christians continue to experience all these things; that life as a member of the Body of Christ is not some rainbow path of delight. Is the Holy Father, then, lying when he calls us a joyful people? Is S John Baptist lying when he calls the message of Christ’s impending Judgment Good News? Do the Sacred Scriptures lie when they command us, as they do this day, to Rejoice!?
The answer, of course, is no, and thrice no! The key to this conundrum lies in getting away from what the world falsely calls happiness, and to that true happiness, which S Paul this morning has called “the peace of God which is so much greater than we can understand” (Philippians 4:7).
What the world calls happiness, what it would think of as joy, is a flimsy, shabby thing, a feeling of exhilaration which is entirely in the emotions. Happiness, for the world, is something you ‘feel.’ For us, dear brothers and sisters, this is not so. For Christians, happiness, joy, is something we are. Far from being something fleeting which we find only in our emotions, happiness for us is a condition of the soul, a part of our whole self.
And – and here’s the tough part – this joy, which is the Lord’s will for us, is nothing like the shadowy thing the world knows as happiness. To be truly happy is not necessarily to feel happy, to feel elated, to be permanently smiling, at all. In fact – and here’s the toughest part yet – true happiness in this world is impossible. Impossible, because whilst we are here, we are at war. At war with our ancient adversary, the Devil; at war with the rogue passions and temptations which struggle within us. Our very bodies are our enemies in this, made wilful by the sins which we commit.
And this is why those disciplines of prayer and fasting, which we intensify this Advent, are a cause for rejoicing, even though they do not make us smile. This is a great mystery, which means that it’s okay for us not to understand it completely: “the peace of God,” after all, “passes all understanding.” But it is a mystery at the heart of what it is to be a Christian, knowing that we are not put in this world merely to enjoy it, that we are not give these bodies of ours – so marvellous and yet so frail – to indulge their every whim. No, rather, we are here on this earth in order to find the path to our true home, which is in heaven. And to do that, we must not indulge the desires of the flesh, but bring them into subjection, under control.
And so it is that we can Rejoice! at these disciplines, Rejoice! at the subjection of the bodily appetite which we, y God’s grace, may win through them. It is not our emotions that rejoice but our very being. In Hebrew, the heart is often thought to be the source of the self; and so it that Zephaniah cries in our first reading: “Shout for joy, daughter of Zion, Israel, shout aloud! Rejoice, exult with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem!” (Zephaniah 3:14). You don’t need me to tell you that the daughter of Zion is all of us, the spotless Bride of Christ, prefigured in the Blessed Virgin Mary, fruit of the Hebrew people.
Zephaniah goes on to tell us why we should rejoice: “The Lord has repealed you sentence; He has driven your enemies away. The Lord, the king of Israel is in your midst; you have no more evil to fear.” The sentence of death, which we all incurred by the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, the wages of sin, which are death, has been cancelled, ad therefore we rejoice! It was cancelled for us on the Cross, when Christ gave His life, as a ransom for many, to redeem us from slavery to sin and the power of death. Rejoice!
He has driven the enemies of our souls far away, banishing, by the power of the sacraments, by the graces given to His Holy Church, all the power of the enemy save that of His voice, which can only harm us if we assent to it, if we give our free consent to sin. Truly, we are our greatest enemies still. Of themselves, the legions of Hell cannot harm us. Rejoice!
The Lord, the king of Israel is in our midst: in our midst as He came on the first Christmas, in the frail mortal flesh of a helpless human child, born a man from the Immaculate flesh of the Blessed Virgin. Rejoice! He is in our midst in His Holy Sacrament, reserved here in this very church, consecrated afresh on this very altar. Rejoice, and again, I say, Rejoice!
So, brothers and sisters, we have reasons for rejoicing. But let us heed too the words of the prophet: “Zion, have no fear, let not your hands fall limp” (Zephaniah 3:16). Though we rejoice in the Lord’s wonderful work among us, we still have work to do, by His grace. We must keep on working at the sanctification of our souls, preparing them for the heavenly reward which, we pray, awaits us. We are here, indeed, to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, in penance and fasting, in almsgiving and thanksgiving, to the glory of Him Who made us.
May what remains of this holy season be to you all, my very dear brothers and sisters, an holy time, a time for holy working and a time for prayer, but above all, a time to Rejoice! For the Lord our God is good. Amen.