Gaudete Sunday

Well, we’ve made it.  We’ve made it to halftime, Gaudete Sunday; what is meant to be rest stop on the long Advent road to the Nativity of Our Lord.  The name Gaudete Sunday comes from the first line of the Introit in the Mass (we’ll use it at the 10am), Gaudete in Domino semper, “Rejoice in the Lord always”.  You’ll note that it’s also the first line from the reading today from blessed Paul.  All the other Sundays in Advent we wear purple, of course, because that is the color of penitence, of royalty, and as my friend Fr. Sammy Wood once pointed out, of a bruise.[1]  But we lighten up a little today; we get a liturgical Gatorade and PowerBar, and we recharge for the good times ahead.

So how many of you have finished your Christmas shopping?  How many of you are more like me, and haven’t started?  I don’t even know where to begin at this point, but I guess I’ll sit down tonight and make a list, check it twice, and rejoice that Amazon exists.

St. Paul had a wish list for the Christians in Thessalonica, we just heard it: rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.  On the face of it, it sounds like a happy little list, a recipe for being nice and cheerful.  But, of course, it’s not that at all; it may be the most difficult wish list of all time.

Let’s look at each command on its own.  To rejoice is to be full of joy, to be elated, to be exuberant in happiness.  Apparently Paul thinks that Christians should feel this way all the time, but how many of us can live up to that kind of standard?  When I was a teenager, I had some big-E Evangelical friends who would feel bad about feeling bad because they weren’t rejoicing all the time.  But another definition of rejoice is to cause joy; so even in terrible times we can rejoice in the Lord, the Lord can cause us to be joyful because He is with us.  We can also be the cause of the joy for others – our words and actions can rejoice the hearts of those around us.

Then Paul tells us to pray constantly, which on first blush sounds like bad advice.  Should we be praying instead of, say, concentrating on work or a book or on a conversation with a friend?  If we don’t close our eyes all day and recite the Book of Common Prayer, are we failing Paul?  Well, I’m not sure.  Paul could be uncompromising at times.  But I think what he meant here is that we should develop an attitude of prayer.  We do that by being aware of God’s presence and His availability to us.  Brother Lawrence, the 17th Century monk, called this “practicing the presence of God.”  And if we practice the presence of God, we begin to speak to Him more and more – praying, as it were, constantly.

If the first two weren’t enough, Paul then tells us to give thanks in all circumstances.  Right off the bat, we want to remember that Paul isn’t saying we should give thanks for all circumstances, but rather in all circumstances.  As Scott Hoezee points out, it’s wrong to “give thanks for all circumstances, because that would mean giving thanks for sin and suffering and death, which are contrary to (God’s) will.  God does not want us to call the Holocaust good.

“How on earth can we do that?  Only if we genuinely believe that “God works all things together for good for those who love him….”  The only way we can believe that promise in the face of the horrors of human existence is “in Christ Jesus,” that is, in the light of what God has done for us in him.  We will be able to give thanks in all circumstances only if we believe that Jesus proves God’s commitment to turn even the worst into the best.”[2]

So I’ll probably sit down tonight and start making a list.  I’ll pray constantly that I remember everybody, I’ll rejoice that gift cards are always a welcome gift, and I’ll give thanks that my loved ones know my circumstances, given that Christmas Eve is on a Sunday this year.

And I’ll think about St. Paul’s Christmas wish list for us: rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.    Three responses, really, to the actions of God; three responses to that unspeakable gift of God that is Christ Jesus.

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