3rd Sunday of Advent: Chapter


REJOICE IN THE LORD ALWAYS; AGAIN, I SAY,‘REJOICE'. These words from the Epistle to the Philippians (4. 4, 5) give the name to this third Sunday of Advent which is known as Gaudete Sunday. In the Latin Vulgate translation the reading is: "Gaudete in Domino semper, iterum dico, gaudete". Advent is characterized by a joyous expectation in the confident hope that soon the Lord will come to save us. St. Paul, in fact, goes on in this passage to add another phrase that gives the cause for such joy: "quia prope est Dominus" ("for the Lord is near"). He is coming in the flesh at Christmas; he is already near to us by grace and comes daily by the promptings of the Spirit whom he has given to us. He is not only near, he is within us, in our heart, in the depths of our spirit. This is cause indeed to rejoice. There is more than first occurs to the mind wrapped up in these few words. Let us strive to grasp their meaning more precisely if we can, and try to discover something of their fuller implications. What does it mean "to rejoice in the Lord"? It soon becomes apparent to anyone who attempts this task that is not possible to give any adequate and precise definition of this expression. The best we can do is to paraphrase it with parallel phrases such as: "To find delight in him"; " to feel glad, or cheerful knowing we belong to him and that he has given himself to us". Such joy, then, results from our attachment to the Lord, not from any other benefit he might bestow on us such as good health, success, loving friends.

Joy is not so readily understood as some of the other states of consciousness. While there is a wide agreement concerning its general characteristics, various writers define it somewhat differently. Their treatments are rather complementary than contradictory, arising from distinct points of departure in part as well as from the character of joy itself. Its exact nature is elusive in good measure, as it seems to me, because it derives, in its essence, from deeper levels of the soul, and is rooted in the spirit, not in the psyche. For example, Karl Rahner and H.Vorgrimmler describe joy as "an experience of ordered harmony of the plurality of human existence." Joy, in this view of things, is ultimately founded on the intrinsic harmony of the cosmos which, in turn, is due to the fact that Christ is the meaning and ground or creation. The experience of harmony that is joy is rendered possible only because all creation is ordered to Christ, the Word made flesh (cf. Theological Dictionary, s.v. Joy). Father John Hardon, s.j. defines joy as "a feeling aroused by expectation or possession of some good." He observes that it is rooted in the rational will (cf. A Pocket Catholic Dictionary, s.v. Joy). The New Catholic Encyclopedia describes joy as a "pleasant state of quiescence in which the will is satisfied in a good." A condition for this experience is intellectual reflexive awareness. Modern English usage employs this word in a very wide sense. The American Heritage Dictionary is less satisfactory, stating that it is "Intense and especially ecstatic or exultant happiness." This definition, however, is too restrictive in that it excludes the profound and quiet joy known to many of the saints in the midst of suffering, and experienced by many fervent followers of Christ in their daily life. One cannot always be exultant or ecstatic, yet St. Paul teaches in the text cited above that we should "rejoice always."

Aristotle had already examined this question and St. Thomas considered he came up with the right view of the matter. Delight, Thomas maintained (cf. 1a 2ae 31.1), differs from joy in that it is a movement and state of the sensitive soul. Delight is experienced by animals as well as by human persons; joy, on the contrary, is proper to human beings and to angels, for "we do not speak of joy except when delight follows reason (1a 2ae 31.3)". We feel gratitude for God's gifts to us; we experience joy when we find ourselves absorbed with his person, when we feel he is near and present to us.

It is useful, perhaps, to point out that to be near is not the same as being present to someone. A man can be physically at our elbow and mentally and emotionally very distant. To be present to another is to relate as a person, communicating a certain respect and attentiveness to him in his concrete, current state of being. Such presence is itself a form of charity, that is of benevolent love that transcends selfish satisfaction. Though, to be sure, such a relation is the most gratifying of all experiences, the gratification is not sought for itself, but is a by-product, a gratuitous fruit of self-giving. Joy is one of the purest of responses to another for it arises from appreciation of the other in himself. It does not arise from self interest; rather it is responsive to the qualities of the other who, in some real manner, we truly love. Joy results because, being created in the image of God, we find fulfillment in imitating God who as Trinity is essentially shared love. The intensity and purity of joy varies with the degree and quality of the loving desire in which it is rooted. That, in turn, is determined by the quality of the object of one's love as well as on the virtue of the lover. Supreme joy arises from the perfection of love for God and has God himself as its object. There is also a joy of participation in God's life and love; our sharing is his life is a profound source of spiritual delight, one that is compatible with other affections such as sorrow (cf. 2a 2ae 28.2). Further, in proportion as human friendship and other loving relations reflect divine qualities, such as dedication to truth, goodness and spiritual beauty, those human relationships too are a source of true joy for us.

For joy is, in fact, rooted in love, as St. Thomas Aquinas avers in his analysis of its nature. "It is evident", he states, "that love is the first affection of the appetitive power and that desire and joy follow from it. Hence the same virtuous habit inclines us to love and desire the beloved good, and to rejoice in it (2a 2ae 28. 4)."

In practice this means that to take joy in any one occurs only when there is some measure of bonding with that person so that in some way he has become another self, or at least is experienced as such. It would even seem that to experience joy in another is itself a bonding experience, either creating a new union or intensifying one that already exists. Joy results from the fulfillment of desire or an aspiration that is rooted deeply in the soul. Only when the other embodies some value or good that we admire and aspire after do we react to his presence with that spontaneous, gladsome feeling we call joy and that makes life seem somehow more complete, more worthy.

Jesus understood his life and preaching to be a source of surpassing joy. St. Luke makes it clear that his birth was already a source of great joy to many. At the Visitation Mary, carrying the child in her womb, the joy brought by the Lord was already communicated to the Baptist and, of course to Elizabeth and her household. He presented his message precisely as good news and compared its content to a wedding feast. His own person produced joy in those who lived with him so that they could not be sad or fast when he was present among them. So great a cause of joy was he that John the Baptist compared his person to a bridegroom, and he referred to himself under the same image. Those who accept him and his teaching are characteristically led to rejoice. The first thing that Matthew did when he came to know Jesus and accept him was to make a banquet and invite the Lord as the honored guest. As the last event of his active ministry when he gave out his most moving and profound thoughts and aspirations was a meal with his disciples. The joy he brings is expressed more fully in community of those who are one in heart and mind in their union with him (For these reflections and some of the following see Theologishes Realenzyklopädie 11, s.v. Freude).

Our Lord, to be sure, was keenly aware that however pure and elevated in this life, joy would always remain imperfect and limited. He turned the hopes and aspirations to his hearers to a world where joy would one day be full. Thus in the beatitudes he preaches a happiness that looks to a future world where the values that will be rewarded are those despised in this world. "Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted", in the world to come, that is. The Apocalypse is faithful to this transcendent vision and depicts heaven as a place of light, glory and praise where God is the source of unending blessings to the saints. Joy, symbolized by the brilliant attire of a bride, is everywhere diffused throughout the heavenly city of which God is the soul, under the form of light.

The Church Fathers grasped with a sure spiritual sense this message of joy and its implications for Jesus' followers. They carried his ‘good news' to their communities wrote of it and explained its significance in their preaching. Origen, to name the most creative of them all, understood the Word of God as ever-flowing fountain of refreshment and a source of spiritual gladness. "The Gospel is a discourse that contains the announcement of events that, justly in view of their usefulness, gives joy to those who hear it from the moment they accept the announcement (In Joannem 1.5 S.C. 120, p. 75). Just as the appropriate nourishment for the body satisfies animals, so also, he writes,"Every rational nature has need of nourishment that is proper to it and suitable for its condition. Now the true nourishment of reasonable nature is the word of God (Hom. sur les Nombres 27.1 S.C. 29, p. 512 )." The Word of God then is ordered to provide a profound satisfaction to our spiritual nature. He is aware, at the same time, that the joy at discovering the true sense of Scripture as revealed by Christ is inevitably accompanied by suffering (cf. Dict. de Spiritualité VIII.1245).


St. Augustine as well treated seriously of the question of joy in relation to the Gospel. He points out that since Jesus is "the way the truth and the life" he showed that what we call happiness is false and leads to slavery. He is the one who reveals what our true happiness is. He also bestows on us the special graces need to attain to it. Joy results from that happiness that is founded in truth. For, as Augustine demonstrates, though two individuals might disagree totally as to what activity would make them happy, yet both make their choice based upon their opinion as to what will bring them joy. "They call the joy itself the happy life", he writes . " For, though one seeks joy in this way, the other in that, yet there is one thing which all strive to attain and that is to rejoice. And since everybody has had some experience of joy when they hear mention made of the happy life they recognize what it is from their memory (Confessiones 10:31 B.A.C. ed. Madrid 1965, 504). Thus joy is the interior experience of the happy life; it unites all the faculties in a single fruition. It is found when a person seeks the truth with desire. However fortunate a person might be in this life, never will he know the fulness of joy. Joy is certain only when it is the result of attaining eternal truth.

For St. Augustine, then, joy results from realizing the goal of desire. If we would attain to perfect happiness we must intensify and enlarge our desire. "For," he wrote, "desire is the space inside the heart; we shall attain what we desire if we extend desire as much as we are able (In Jo. 40.10). This doctrine then is another link that connects joy with the season of Advent which fosters the longing for the coming of Christ to bring salvation and eternal life to his people.

St. Bernard

Bernard too is one of the more prominent preachers concerning the importance of joy for the Christian, and of the appropriate means of attaining to its perfection. He points out that the very ardor of desire is a foretaste of beatitude (De Diligendo Deo 4.11 cited in Dict. De Spirit. VIII, 1248 which I follow closely in the rest of this paragraph). Bernard insists, however, that before we can expect our desire to be ardent we must mortify ourselves and abstain from false satisfactions. This entails sharing in the passion of Christ. In a Sermon that has joy as its theme, he develops this point further and stresses the need for purification before we can be capable of pure joy.

Good wine is not from the vine of impurity but from the jar of purification. Good wine is not made from the grape of Gomorrah but from the water of Judea. "You have saved the good wine until now (John 2: 10)." For the best wine is saved until now; in that it is not made with water but rather from that great cluster from the promised land that is carried upon a pole when we know Christ according to the flesh and him crucified (Sermo de Diversis 18.2, PL 183:588).

After laboring at this work of cleansing the heart the soul is freed from vice and begins to drink of the wine of joy, having learned to glory not only in hope but also in tribulation(cf. Rom 5.2,3). Though in the present time of purification we are not left without consolation, he reminds us, but are helped by the Holy Spirit. "This is the two-fold joy that you have in the meantime in the Holy Spirit, namely from the memory of future goods and from enduring present evils (Sermo de Diversis 18.3, PL 183:588)." This rejoicing still has a certain restlessness about it that leads us to desirer a deeper satisfaction which we seek through union with our Savior in prayer. In the measure that we turn in prayer to the Lord we begin to enjoy more than the memory of the Lord; we experience his presence, even at times, his embrace. Although only a total union with the Word made flesh will satisfy the longing spirit, in this life we must live by faith and be content with a longing for face to face vision possible only in heaven Still even now we posses the Lord as an amiable companion on the way who lightens our travels with his delightful conversation. Bernard describes in elaborate detail the ways in which the Lord solicits our love and sustains our hope by revealing himself to us as lovable.

And in all these things he is gentle and tender, rich in mercy. For in his kiss he is affectionate and mild; he anoints us, as it were, with soothing pigments and fragrant salves by treating us with gentleness, overflowing with delicate compassion. On our journey he is cheerful, affable, charming and consoling; he is munificent in showing us his riches and possessions, and in his royal largess shows himself to be lavish in bestowing rewards (Super Cantica 31.8, PL 183: 944).

Accordingly, we can even now live in joy, though our joy must remain imperfect so long as we are in the body devoted to death. We can hope to know the fullness of joy only after the body is glorified by the resurrection, and enjoy the face to face vision promised to those who are pure of heart. Even then, although we shall be fully satisfied, yet our desire will continue to stretch out taking us further into the source of our delight in the Lord.

Since joy is the fulfillment of the ardent desire of the true good who is Christ the Lord, and desire is the fruit of charity, if we would attain to perfect joy we must make it our concern to cultivate that love of God that is pure and ardent and which we denominate charity. Advent, in fostering our longing for the Lord's presence stimulates us to strive after a more pure and more profound love for God. By placing before the eyes of the spirit the mercy and goodness of God who patiently awaits our repentance and forgives our sins in view of refashioning us in the image of his son, the liturgy gives us strong motivation for responding to God's kindness with a loving gratitude. When we reflect on the fact that it is his own son whom he sends to aid us by his personal sacrifice, his humility and suffering and even his death we come to feel a greater trust in approaching him and become more confident of his welcoming us. Nothing so stimulates love as recognition that one is loved. Let us take these considerations to heart then as we enter upon this second half of the Advent season that, made ready through more fervent love and gratitude to God, we might receive Christ in joy when he comes to take us with himself to the presence of his merciful Father.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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