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The Sunday of rejoicing

By Bishop Terry R. LaValley

December 15, 2021

I was never much of an athlete. So, when I was in high school, my extra-curricular activities included public speaking. My junior year, I participated in a local public speaking contest and I remember one Friday afternoon giving my speech on the center stage in the auditorium at a school assembly. I think there were five other contestants.

I had chosen Jonathan Edwards’ sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” for my speech. I remember when I got to the point in the sermon when I said: “God holds you over the pit of hell as he holds a spider dangling over fire,” I heard a portion of the student body snickering. At the end, they gave me a neat ovation. But, it was too late. I was so embarrassed and hurt. Afterward, my coach explained to me that they laughed because my delivery of the hellfire and brimstone sermon was so out of character to my rather happy-go-lucky personality. I guess there was a disconnect between what I was saying and my own normal behavior. Well, I won the competition. I suppose that helped to heal my bruised ego a bit. But, as you can see, I haven’t forgotten the event.

As happens often during Advent, St. John the Baptist takes center stage. In paintings and movies, he is often depicted as an ill-tempered, fire and brimstone preacher who scared people into repentance. There’s something wrong with that picture. Now, I’m no John the Baptist, but it seems he had the same issue of people misreading the man as I had that Friday afternoon long ago.

First, such a judgment fails to explain how he was able to attract such huge crowds and win over so many hearts. You see, people don’t come if you’re always yelling and screaming, putting them down. And second, it misses the main point of his message: Salvation is at hand! That message is just the opposite of dark, threatening, and foreboding words. In fact, when we, more and more, come to understand and accept the Good News, it is the source of a deeper joy than any other we can experience in this life. Luke ended today’s Gospel reading by telling us that the Baptist “preached good news to the people.”

And that’s the whole point of today’s celebration. Today, the Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing. That’s why today’s readings often mention the word “joy.” Jesus didn’t come to intimidate and oppress us; He came to save us. Salvation, friendship with God, is the fullness of living in communion with our Creator and Redeemer, of being “gathered into the barns” of His eternal Kingdom. This is the message of Christmas, the joyful expectation and hope of the Advent Season.

In today’s Second Reading, St. Paul actually commands us to “rejoice in the Lord always.” And, just in case we thought he was exaggerating, in the very next sentence Paul says, “I shall say it again, rejoice!” We can only rejoice “always” if our joy is based on something that goes deeper than the passing pleasures of this world.

What is that deeper thing? Salvation; an intimate relationship with God; something that never ends, and something no one can take away from us.

The joy of Christ our Savior is different from the joys of the world in three ways. First, it doesn’t wear out. This is because it comes from something that is dynamic, alive: our relationship with Christ. Might this not be a good way of looking at why the Christmas tree is an evergreen tree. In winter, the other trees are leafless and dormant. Not so, the ever-green and fragrant fir tree. (Now, I’m not talking about an artificial tree!) But, the evergreen can symbolize hope amid winter’s lifeless, cold and dark days.

Second, Christ’s joy gets more and more intense as we advance in our journey of faith. Another way to symbolize this is by the third candle on the Advent wreathe that we light today, the rose-colored one. It reminds us of the color of the sky at the very brink of morning when the sun is just beginning to come up. The horizon takes on a pale rose color that gradually gets redder and brighter as the sun rises. For the faith-filled, Catholic Christian, life is like a long sunrise, and death is the entrance into the bright, everlasting day of eternal life.

Third, the more we give this joy to others, the more we will have for ourselves. And this, of course, is symbolized in the tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas. Jesus Himself told us that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We have all experienced that when we do something for others. Even if it is costly or uncomfortable for us, we experience true fulfillment and satisfaction. But, when we give into our selfish, self-centered tendencies, we shrivel up, like Scrooge. It’s like what happens at the Easter Vigil when we light our candles and then light someone else’s. In the process we lose nothing and gain more light and warmth than we had before. This is the joy Jesus wants to bring to us: a lasting, growing, self-multiplying joy that comes from accepting God’s gift of our Savior.

Pope Benedict XVI once preached: “If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to Him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps sometimes afraid to give up something significant to us? Do we not then risk ending up diminished? The Pope emeritus said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.

No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly made known. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty, true happiness and joy. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, I say to you…Do not be afraid of Christ. He takes nothing away, and He gives you everything. When we give ourselves to Him, we receive a hundredfold in return. So, open wide your hearts to Christ and rejoice, I shall say it again, REJOICE! Happy Gaudete Sunday!

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