“Rejoice in the Lord Always”

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Life is good when you are happy, but better when others are happy because of you

Homily By Fr Antonio Pernia SVD for the Third Sunday of Advent Year C
Readings: Zeph 3:14-18a / Phil 4:3-7 / Lk 3:10-18

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent. This Sunday is called “Gaudete Sunday” or “Rejoice Sunday.” And the reason is because the word “rejoice” appears several times in today’s readings.

The Entrance Antiphon says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” And in the first reading, we hear: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel!” The responsorial psalm exclaims: “Shout with exultation, O city of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!” And the response is: “Cry out with joy and gladness!” And the second reading is from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, from where the entrance antiphon is taken: “Brothers and sisters, rejoice always; again I say, rejoice.”

It is only the gospel reading that does not contain the word “rejoice.” In fact, the gospel reading seems to be a contrast to the spirit of the other readings, because the gospel presents to us the austere figure of John the Baptist with his message of repentance and conversion.

But the overall spirit of this Third Sunday of Advent is captured by the word “rejoice,” which is why this Sunday is called “Gaudete Sunday.” This is further underlined by the pink, rather than the violet, vestments worn by the priest. And, if you have an “Advent wreath,” the third of the four candles is colored pink as well. And so, this Sunday provides a respite from the somber and penitential air of Advent. We are mid-way in our Advent journey, and indeed we are moving closer to Christmas. And so, the Entrance Antiphon exclaims: “Rejoice in the Lord always …. the Lord is near.”

But what does “to rejoice” really mean? How can people “rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS”? How can one be always joyful? We all know that pain and suffering are part and parcel of human life. It simply is not possible to avoid struggles and failures in life. How can we be people of joy in the midst of hardships that are going to be always around us? Indeed, in this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, how can we be joyful?

Some years ago, a book was published, which carried the title, “The Politics of Happiness” (2010). It was authored by a Harvard University professor by the name of Derek Bok. In this book, the author advocates making “what makes people happy” the central aim of politics. That is, politics should be directed towards that which makes people happy. The book is based on the results of a research on happiness and well-being. And so, the subtitle of the book is “What Governments can Learn from the New Research on Well-being.”

This book apparently received support from the United Nations, when the UN declared March 20th of every year as the “International Day of Happiness.” And the tiny nation of Bhutan has adopted the main point of the book, establishing a GNH (Gross National Happiness) instead of a GNP (Gross National Product) as the index of socio-economic development.

While not explicitly stated in the book, one gets the impression from reading it that happiness is ultimately an inner disposition – a state of mind or a mind-set which manifests an attitude of being content with what one has and is, and does not go around looking for what one cannot have or be. This does not mean that one should not strive for more, but it means being content with whatever one achieves in striving for more. As my novice master used to tell us: “If you do not get what you like, then like what you get.”

True happiness arises from joy and not just from pleasure. Very often we confuse joy with pleasure. But these two are not exactly the same. Pleasure is self-seeking. Pleasure is about me feeling good. Joy is self-giving. Joy is about making others feel good. Indeed, joy is an inner disposition that bubbles out of us. It is something that is contagious, more contagious even than coronavirus. It is something that you naturally have to share with others. That is why a truly happy person is one who makes others around him or her happy.

Fundamentally, joy or true happiness is a mind-set which looks at life as a gratuitous gift rather than as a hard-won conquest. A truly happy person is one for whom all is grace and everything is gift. What one has, what one is, is gift. Even what one achieves through hard work is gift. And so, even one’s hard work is itself a gift. Indeed, there is an intrinsic connection between joy and gratuitousness. That is why a truly happy person is one who is also profoundly grateful – grateful for life as an undeserved gift, rather than as a reward merited by hard work.

In the end, a truly happy person is one who is at peace with oneself, with others, with the world, and with God. A truly happy person is one who is aware about how much God loves him or her, and how much God has blessed him or her. A truly happy person is one who knows that he or she is precious in God’s eyes. Ultimately, then, joy is an act of faith. It is a profoundly religious experience. It is an encounter with a loving and compassionate God.

And this is what Christmas is all about. Christmas is a reminder of a God who loves us so much that he became one like us. Let us pray that our celebration of Christmas may teach us to be people of joy, and that our joy may be contagious, for as Pope Francis puts it, “life is good when you are happy; but it is much better when others are happy because of you.”

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