It is Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from wording in Philippians 4:4 – Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! While there is evident joy in the first readings and the Psalm, and a call for patience in the second reading, the gospel is not one that I would immediately connect with joy. It seems to me this is a Sunday whose very name asks us, “What gives you joy? What is the source of joy in your life?” A good question.
The prolific Jesuit writes, Fr. James Martin, points out that it is a different question about what makes you happy – at least in the Christian context. In review of the stories of Scripture, it seems that people are “happy” – as in content, satisfied – with situations, possessions, their own accomplishments, or their general position in life. The rich land owner is quite happy with his abundant harvest. But you would not read the parable and conclude he is rejoicing.
Being joyful is a different category of stories. In Scripture there is a lot that points to joyfulness being best expressed in one’s relationships with others. In the story of Mary’s Visitation to cousin Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth womb “leaps for joy.” Elizabeth is overjoyed knowing the Mother of her Lord has come. If you think about it, we would never recount the Visitation as simply “Oh…and Elizabeth and her child were happy that Mary had come.” There is something more in play.
With the winter storm Electra leaving its mark across the top-tier of the United States, one can be quite happy that the airplane finally got off the ground, that the pilot finally found smooth air, and – even if it was 6 hours late, happy that you have arrived. But when you finally get off the plane, pass thru security, and at last see your spouse, your kids, your parents or grandparents, your fiancé, or whomever you have longed to see…. that is not happy. That is Joy. You hear it in the tone and energy of the voices, the embraces, and the hugs.
And even when the reunion is right in the middle of everyone else’s way, when the reunion is clogging up the entire flow of foot traffic trying to get somewhere, you can’t help but notice even the most curmudgeon-y of travelers, however reluctantly, is giving evidence of a smile. Joy is embedded in the warp and woof, in the very fabric of relationships. Just like Mary and Elizabeth.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! So…. “What gives you joy? What is the source of joy in your life?” In the busyness of everyday life and especially the days before Christmas, I think it is a great question – and one which makes it necessary to pause – and maybe to see more deeply.
I was thinking about such thing this week when I celebrated a funeral for one of our parishioners. No one was happy, but amidst the sadness, Joy was evident, rising above the sadness, above the tears, because of all great relationships he carried in his life. Relationships that were present in the church from his family, from his college days, to his almost 50 years of life here in the Tampa Bay area. Relationships that we trust are carried into the life eternal. Relationships having the common bond of faith in Jesus, our priest, prophet and king. The One to whom we are sealed in the waters and sacred anointing of Baptism. The One for whom we await in Advent. The Joy was there waiting to be seen among the tears.
In the middle of writing out this homily I was called to Tampa General Hospital for the “last rites.” A family was gathered for a women who was wife, mom, grandmother, sister, friend and more. The room was in tears. In the course of things, I simply asked them what was a memorable story about this woman. For the next twenty minutes the stories were pouring out and in the midst of the tears was laughter, knowing looks, and above all Joy. They just needed to find the Joy while acknowledging the sadness and pending loss. Joy was waiting to be found – and find it they did.
Where is the Joy in the Gospel reading today? It is not a gospel that just “screams” joy – kinda’ makes you wonder why it is chosen for Gaudete Sunday. The seemingly dogmatic, unbending, unrelenting John the Baptist – the one who just last week condemned the Jerusalem religious leadership as a brood of vipers – the one who was certain that judgment was just over the horizon and that we all needed to get right with God – and is now jailed.
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Mt 11:2)
Where is the joy? I think we need to look past questions of uncertainty, doubt, his possible wondering if his life had been on the right path. He is there in jail, knowing his life will soon be over….and yet he hears of the “works of Christ.” I think it is in that moment, knowing he has done what was his to do, the Joy can be found: the Messiah is here, He is the One. The signs of healing, restoring, and forgiveness are at long last here. The promise of the prophets is being fulfilled! John knows that in his relationship to Jesus is the foundation and rootedness of his own joy. But what about his disciples? They don’t have that relationship to the One. And so John sends them to ask the question: Are you the One? They need to hear the answer.
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Tell John? – not really. He already knew. It is John’s disciples who are on the cusp of understanding, knowing and entering into relationship with Jesus. All the signs of the Kingdom are there. Each one a moment of stupendous joy amidst a suffering world. Stories that will be told and retold. John’s disciples need to see past their sadness, the edge of being alone without John. For someone is greater is here.
That for which prophets and kings longed to see – and did not – the One is here. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near. You just need to see anew. again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near. We just need to learn to see the Joy that surrounds us.