Today is Gaudete Sunday.
If that is news to you like it was to me—stay tuned. There’s more. Gaudete Sunday is the third Sunday of Advent and we light the pink candle in the advent wreath. My granddaughter Lucy wanted to know why we light the pink candle on the third week and not the fourth, and I didn’t know. Gaudete is the answer to the question. It means rejoice or joy in Latin and rose or pink is the liturgical color of joy. To rejoice is to re-joy or remember the joy. After weeks of judgment parables and Christ on the cross, we get a breather; all our scriptures today are about joy—either pointing to joy or experiencing the joy of salvation. When I realized this I thought, “Great, I’ll just whip up a little sermon about joy!”, but it wasn’t that easy. Joy is hard to define and it’s difficult to find theologians or writers who explain or explore the topic. Apparently, we’re not talking about joy very much! We are joy challenged.
First, let’s look at John the Baptist. A ’John’ fact for us is that right here in Christ Church we have a Russian icon known as The Theophany (or Revelation) of God in St. Anne’s Chapel. In this icon, John is baptizing Christ, with joyful angels in attendance. Christ is revealed as God’s son. Get a look at it if you have the chance. I’m always a little confused by this scripture where John acts like he didn’t know Jesus before the baptism. Weren’t they cousins in the gospel of Luke? John in the gospel of John is John the witness—not John the Baptist. The function of this narrative is to give us a big road sign that says, “Jesus Christ is the Messiah.” John is pointing to Christ as “One among you that you do not know,” and preparing the way as he was told. We do not know Christ is among us and the Holy Spirit is anonymously preparing the way for him in our lives. What sort of preparation is this? From what I can tell, the Holy Spirit begins to lay the ground work when we are still sinners and uses our current circumstances to do it!
For instance, my favorite Anglican, C.S. Lewis, talks about his conversion to Christianity in his book Surprised by Joy. He says he was seeking God like a mouse seeks a cat—not at all. He was a proud and rebellious atheist living his life on his terms, when one day he noticed a curious thing. All of the authors that he gravitated towards were Christian. He wondered why that was and he did an analysis. Lewis realized it was because he found them to have more weight, more depth to their thoughts and at the same time did not skirt hard issues. Although slow and somewhat arduous, it was through his love of books and intellectual pursuits that joy found him.
One of my other favorite atheists turned Episcopalian is Sara Miller, who wrote Take This Bread. She says being a trained cook and serving food opened her up to the moment when, as a 46 year old, she first tasted communion. Sara wept as she realized that this ‘mysterious sacrament’ was not just symbolic, but actual food, the bread of life. Interestingly, both Lewis and Miller wrote that the preparation is pointing to more, and is always pointing to more. Sara describes hers like this, “Those tears weren’t a conclusion or a happy ending, just part of a motion toward something. It was still continuing. God didn’t work in people according to a convenient schedule by explaining everything or tying up the loose plot lines of every story. Sometimes nothing was settled. So I sat by myself a lot and mused about God, and my mother, and flesh and blood. I read the Bible. I prayed; I tried to stay open to the questions that flooded me. And I didn’t tell anyone I was becoming a religious nut.” (page 72, Take this Bread) Tears can be joy. Opening up can be joy. Joy seems to be both a preparation and a road marker. We do, however, know instinctively that joy is not happiness—they are different.
Happiness is the result of external circumstances or conditions providing us with what we want—not necessarily what we need. For instance, in the 2006 movie “The Pursuit of Happyness” with Will Smith, the main character, Chris Gardner and his son, are homeless for a year while he tries to sell bone density scanners. The triumphant end of the story is when he wins a coveted position at a brokerage firm in New York City and becomes a millionaire. This is how we like stories to end—he has a lot of money so now everything will be ok. I would say this is really the beginning of the story, because happiness is short lived. It’s based on external conditions staying as they are, which we all know doesn’t happen.
Happiness is managing our circumstances in such a way that we get what we want. Fill in the blank—I will be happy when___ I get a new job, my husband or wife changes, my mother is happy, the pain goes away, I get a new boyfriend or girlfriend, I retire, I buy a house, I sell my house, I lose weight. And then we get those things and we’re not happy, so we look for the new thing to do. We believe happiness is the absence of pain or discomfort. These expectations can be especially high at Christmas when our hopes of a Merry Christmas can depend on who we’re with, what we get, what we’re invited to, or how much money we have.
The problem is that our soul can sense there is something deeper and longer lasting than happiness. Our soul has tasted joy through grace and knows it is deeply connected to the reality of pain and discomfort. In fact, joy happens in the midst of pain and suffering. Joy is not contingent on anything else to exist. It cannot be bought and is not conditional on someone else’s behavior. Joy exists because God en-joyed us, as it tells us in Isaiah—he placed joy inside of us that responds to Him alone. Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. The paradox of the universe is that joy and sorrow meet in the cruciform shape of the cross. You have to have one to know the other.
This may be why we don’t speak of joy as readily as happiness. Happiness wants to banish pain and discomfort, where joy is the child of sorrow. Joy is God’s way of creating order out of chaos, giving us beauty for ashes. God doesn’t inflict pain on us but, when we turn our thoughts to Him, He turns the pain into joy. Joy is the divine gift buried inside our hard times. Think of Paul and Silas in jail in the book of Acts—they were singing praise to God while in prison, when an earthquake opened the doors. We can turn our trials and sorrow over to God’s will instead of our own. We can ask God to stay with us when we’re scared, to help us lift our eyes to heaven instead of getting mired in the hell we may be living through, to ask for direction out of the darkness into the light.
So what does this joy look like? What does it feel like? Will I know it when it comes? Sara Miles describes her first memory of joy like this when she was a child, “I lay by myself in the muddy backyard in my snowsuit, examining a fallen log, looking, and looking and looking. There were patches of snow on the wet wood and, around it, spears of onion grass just beginning to poke up, and I sat up after half an hour contemplating the log. The cloudy sky above me was so huge, and I was so small. The phrase ‘the whole universe’ occurred to me. I must have been in the third grade, and no amount of paper-mache solar system models had prepared me for the vast, heart-beating calm I felt, or for the inarticulate desire to just stay there, suspended, looking and breathing my tiny puffs of the whole universe’s air, until I had to pee and went inside.” (page 71, Take this Bread)
Once we taste it we want more, but we look in all the wrong places—things and pleasure and happiness are poor substitutes for God-produced joy. C. S. Lewis said that joy surprised him when he woke up to the fact that God truly loved him and he loved God.
Psychologist Sandra Brown concurs and adds, “Only in the stillness can we ever find the joy that resides inside of us, dependent on nothing external to exist. Joy comes when you make peace with who you are, and why you are and have settled into an abiding.” Our Isaiah text today tells us what that settling into abiding looks like- to live the life we’ve been given. To build houses and inhabit them, plant and eat, enjoy the work of your hands, [and] before you call, God will answer.” This is what it means to rejoice always. Love the life you’ve been given, not a different life. Love the people you have been given, just the way they are. Love yourself the way God made you. Rejoice in all circumstances because it is the will of Christ Jesus for you. Rejoice in the pain, in the dark, in the uncomfortable and hard times. Rejoice that you still have breath, a life and a God who loves you. Pray without ceasing.
What circumstances can God use in your life to invite you into a deeper relationship with Him so you can experience joy? In the middle of your pain, can you see John the Witness pointing you toward Christ? God is hidden in the midst of our circumstances- so we can allow God to work them out for good.
One last story about joy.
When my father-in-law Nick Thomas was dying at Westminster-Canterbury the day after Christmas in 1999, we thought it was the worst thing that could happen at that time. My husband Stuart had been able to be with him off and on over the three years that he had been sick, but we thought we would have more time with him. The nurses somehow knew, as they do in these cases, that it was imminent and summoned us. We were there in the room when he breathed his last and it was over. We expected to feel great grief, which we did, but we also experienced joy, unexpected joy. It was very clear to us that although his body was there, he was not. He had passed through the dark into the light. The joy was palpable, healing and gave us both great peace. Christ had come for Nick. The waiting was over. Light the pink candle because Gaudete is real. What we imagined to be one of our worst days was in retrospect one of our most joyful. It pointed to the more that we know in our souls to be true. This is our witness—and what we are pointing to—there is joy. It is the road marker to an ever deeper relationship with God. Rejoice because it is God’s will for you in all circumstances.