Joy is the theme of the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, which gets its name from the Introit of the Mass: “Rejoice always in the Lord” (Phil. 4:4). In the Second Reading today, Paul repeats the call: “Rejoice always!” (1 Thess. 5:16). How realistic is his call?
To this, my first answer is: Lourdes. Why? There, one experiences something of the joy of which St. Paul spoke over and over again. Lourdes reverses the order of our secular world, where wealth, money, health, and status seem to be the only values that count. In Lourdes, the sick, the poor, the little ones of this world—like the young seer Bernadette herself—are the prized ones. And they radiate joy. That is the ever-present miracle of Lourdes—indeed,
of our faith.
Central to any pilgrimage is Confession. One of the great graces many find in Lourdes is the gift of repentant tears. There is no joy like that of a repentant sinner, who tastes God’s infinite love and mercy, who experiences that peace that the world cannot take away, the peace of Christ. Our Lord says that those who mourn will be consoled (Matt. 5:4). Blessed are those who mourn their own sins, because God is drawn to the contrite and brokenhearted (see Ps. 51:17). But also blessed are those who mourn the sins of others—that is, those who are saddened by the spiritual damage sin does to others and whose sadness is a prayer for their repentance.
There is, however, another kind of mourning that is not blessed: Scripture refers to it as the “sorrow of the world” (see 2 Cor. 7:10). According to St. Paul, this kind of mourning leads to death, specifically in the form of boredom and its related vice—sloth, or spiritual inertia. These are often the products of secularism, with its theoretical and practical denial of God. Boredom may be one of the defining characteristics of our age, the product of the dominant assumption that nothing is sacred, that nothing really matters.
Boredom is the experience of indifference. Life no longer tastes good; or, rather, everything tastes the same. Despair is never far from the surface in today’s society, frequently manifesting itself in the form of consumerist excess and workaholism and addiction. These all arise from a sense of helplessness and a desire to escape. And the modern entertainment industry feeds off this boredom, trying to assuage it with constant stimuli that are subject to the law of diminishing returns. As a result, entertainment must become ever louder and more frenetic to distract people, as Pope Benedict XVI would say, from the spiritual void in the depths of their hearts.
The antidote to boredom is the humble acceptance of our true greatness and dignity, of our vocation to full communion with God, of the fact that we are loved by God with a passionate love. Once we submit to God’s love,
revealed in the Face of Christ, we know true and lasting joy. The assurance of that joy is what we celebrate on Gaudete Sunday, the joy that alone can answer the deepest longings of the human soul.
The earliest evidence we have of human life demonstrates a deep concern with the sacred, especially those ritual sites associated with our passage from this world to the next. G.K. Chesterton never failed to express his own amazement at the evidence of such profound reverence for the sacred found in earliest traces of human life on earth. Our ancestors fervently desired to know the transcendent Other, to see His face. Their idols were expressions, however disordered, of the desire written into the DNA of all people to see the Face of God.
The Old Testament gave voice to the human desire to see the Face of God: “It is your face that I seek, O Lord, hide not your face” (Ps. 27:8). And yet, when eventually God did show His Face, His chosen people didn’t recognize Him. He was a great disappointment. Even John the Baptist was tempted to doubt, as we heard in today’s Gospel.
As John languished in Herod’s filthy jail with the threat of death hanging over his head, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask what the great German exegete Heinrich Schlier called the Advent question: “Are you he who is
to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3). This is the question that arises in the hearts of all believers at
some stage in our lives, above all when affliction seems to overwhelm us, when human hopes fade, and when our daily joys evaporate—when God seems to have hidden His Face.
The important thing is that John turned to the Lord in his existential predicament—perhaps we could say in his dark night of the soul. He didn’t despair or rebel. John’s expectations might have been shattered, but he still looked
to Jesus to help him out of his anguish. Jesus gave John’s disciples a paradoxical answer:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me. (Matt. 11:4–6, with reference to Isa. 35:5–6; 61:1)
In other words, blessed is he who will not be shocked by the One Who came, as Isaiah himself foretold, as the Suf-
fering Servant (see Isa. 52:13–15; Zech. 12:10).
In Hebrew, Shekinah means the presence of God among His people, such as His appearing in a cloud over the Tabernacle (see Exod. 40:34). Rabbinical tradition, which coined the term, came eventually to understand the Shekinah as the act of God’s sharing in the lot of His people, first when they went into slavery in Egypt, and later when they went into exile in Babylon. The burning bush (Exod. 3:2) was interpreted as the revelation of God’s Presence in the lowliest plant in the forest, the thorn bush, and it was seen as a symbol of God’s Presence with His chosen people when they felt most abandoned by Him: He was present to them in their suffering, as He was in the burning thorn bush.
Though the prophets would not have been surprised, no one expected God would one day end up being crowned
Advent is the time when we enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s presence with us—that is, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that we could share in His divinity (see 2 Pet. 1:4). This is the source
of our joy, which transcends all ephemeral earthly joys. This joy is the true mark of the Christian martyrs, as can be seen in St. Oliver Plunkett. Though innocent, he was found guilty of treason and condemned to the most gruesome of deaths by being hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, London. There must have been times when he, too, felt abandoned by God. But the night before he was to be executed, we are told, he slept like a newborn babe, and the following day he went to his horrendous death with a smile on his lips.
God never deserts us, even when we feel abandoned by Him: That is the joy we celebrate on the Third Sunday of Advent.
Editor’s note: This excerpt is taken from Advent Reflections: Meditations for a Holy Advent, available now from Sophia Institute Press.