I like words and their origin (etymology if you prefer). I find it interesting how we change the meaning of words. Take the word “peruse” for example; people understand it to mean “glance over, skim,” etc. Yet originally the word meant to read completely and in exacting detail. Here’s another word whose meaning has done an about face: egregious. Today it means to be conspicuous or flagrant – and almost always in a negative sense. Yet the origin of the word from the Latin ex– “out of” and greg– “flock” to give us egregious or “illustrious.” Today we would say “outstanding.”
Today is Gaudete Sunday. The readings proclaim: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess 5:16) It echoes the familiar words from the Letter to the Philippians: Rejoice always, I say again, rejoice, for the Lord is near. I think we have a tendency to “smush” synonyms together so that they lose their distinctive and nuanced meanings. On Gaudete Sunday I wonder about the word “happy” and “joy.” With all apologies to Pharrell Williams and his Grammy award song, “Happy,” we not told to be happy, but are to “rejoice,” to be joyful. Makes me think there’s an important difference.
For example, we refer to the “joy of salvation.” I can’t recall having ever heard the “happiness of salvation.” I don’t know…the latter sounds thin, weak – as in I am happy the laundry is done.
Merriam-Webster defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment” or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” Hmmm…. Not exactly the expression I would use in reflecting upon salvation, but then again, maybe that’s just me. “Joy” is defined as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” Hmmm… “the prospect of possessing what one desires.” Not having it, but just the prospect of it.
God’s desire is that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4). But we’re not all saved right at the moment. But God should be joyful at the prospect of all His children coming home.
St. Augustine famously said that our deepest desire is to rest in God. We don’t yet rest in God, but we have the prospect of it. We can be joyful.
I think there is something to this connection of desire and joy. It points to a deeper, richer, more substantive experience than “happy.” In none of our readings today are we hold to be happy. We are told to rejoice. The prophet Isaiah is writing to the people of Israel going home to Jerusalem after their 40 years of exile in Babylon. “Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy. They will meet with joy and gladness; sorrow and mourning will flee” (Is 51:11) They are not yet home, but they have the prospect of it.
Isaiah compares it to the experience of a wedding day. One can be happy the way a date turned out, but I hope there is something more on the wedding day – a deep abiding joy. One that sustains the couple when later in the marriage the couple needs “glad tidings” and broken hearts need to be healed.
Think about “glad tidings.” We are anticipating Christmas and the angle’s announcement of “Good News of great joy” (Luke 2:10).
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” In all circumstances – we are told to rejoice… and there’s the rub. How are we to be joyful in all circumstances? Maybe it’s this. We are happy with what we possess, but we can be joyful in what we do not yet possess but have the “the prospect of possessing what one desires.”
Today our psalm is taken from the Gospel according to Luke. It is Mary’s prayer of joy that today we call the Magnificat. “My soul rejoices in my God …My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked upon his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed” Mary’s soul rejoices; she experiences a divine joy that penetrates to her very being not only when she arrives to visit her cousin Elizabeth, but when she returns home, on the trip to Bethlehem, during the birth of Jesus, at the presentation in the Temple, while escaping to Egypt from Herod’s murderous rage, and while in exile from hearth and home. In the midst of a life seemingly going off the rails, while she might not be happy, she knows joy even as she waits. She is busy with her family, yet Mary knew the power of waiting, the power of prayer, as she ponders these things in her heart – and she rejoiced – happy or not.
A start to answering the question “how are we to be joyful in all circumstances?” is to be clear about what one desires. Mary was clear. Isaiah desired the people Israel to return home – even if the way home was rugged and the fact that Jerusalem still lay in ruins. Isaiah says to be joyful: look at the promises fulfilled. Liberty was proclaimed to the captives, and now they know the joy of a prisoner’s release.
Even as we rebuild our lives from pandemic and economic turmoil, we need to pray in thanksgiving for what has been fulfilled as well as for what will be fulfilled even if not in your lifetime. Do that and when that becomes your desire, you will know a deep abiding joy. Mary understood the promised Messiah was being fulfilled in her choice to let God’s will be done unto her. Her life forward was not always happy; but it was joyful.
Sometimes happiness it on the road to joy; sometimes not. Sometimes we have to make choices that will not leave us or others “content.” It may well leave us bereft, anxious, or second-guessing ourselves. But it might just be the path to joy. So…. be egregious – be apart from the flock – be outstanding in prayer. Peruse all that is unfolding in your life – and be thankful that God’s plan is unfolding and wait in Hope for what is promised. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.