Today is traditionally called ‘Gaudete’ Sunday; now, it is not easy to ‘gaudere’, that is, to rejoice, as our readings encourage us: it is not easy because such rejoicing is not natural, it is supernatural, a gift from God. Let us, therefore, for a short while just think about our human rejoicing and God’s gift.
Most commonly -- apart from family love -- it is success, pleasure, or advantage of some sort, that leads most human beings to rejoice. But success, pleasurable feelings, and advantageous circumstances or events are all natural experiences, and all of them are dependent upon and subject to so many natural influences, that we can never know just how and when they might be lost or taken away from us: perhaps a disappointment, or an ailment of some sort; again, it might be a disagreement, some vague feeling of unease or foreboding, some unexpected and unfortunate turn of events, and, of course, always human weakness and wickedness, all such things can mar or embitter our success, thwart or spoil our pleasure, deprive us of anticipated advantage without warning. In countless ways our hoped-for joys of whatever sort – including family joys, alas -- can be turned, surprisingly easily and unexpectedly, into disappointment, sorrow, frustration, or anxiety.
Because of this, we recognize that neither pleasure, success, nor advantage, all of which so often promise to promote human rejoicing, can in fact bring us to that desired state of constant rejoicing recommended by the prophet Zephaniah and St. Paul.
Moreover, natural pleasure, of its very nature, is fickle, repeat it too often and it easily becomes tasteless; and success won or advantage gained, frequently provoke antagonism and animosity in others, which is by no means conducive to our rejoicing.
How, then, should we appreciate and can we hope to attain such full and enduring joy?
With such thoughts and experiences in mind, there have been those who have sought to find, if not rejoicing, at least a measure of peace in mind and heart, by cutting themselves off from the world by philosophical or ascetic practices whereby they aspired to become indifferent to the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ as Shakespeare puts it. But surely, such practices are non-starters for those who want to know how they can learn to rejoice in this life?
We are on a more promising track if we can rejoice over beauty and truth … but, what are true rejoice-able beauty and authentic rejoice-able truth?? The heavens proclaim the glory of God, and there is both unimaginable beauty and life-serving and inspiring truth to be found in the glory of the world around us and in the heavens above us for those simple ones (before God!) whose eyes are open, whose mind is humble, and whose heart is pure. But, precisely, how, oh how, are we to attain and develop rightly those qualities of openness, humility, and purity of heart??
We are now, however, and despite all the difficulties, beginning to see that it might be possible for us to rejoice continually in this world, with the help of some blessing that would enable us to accept the trials of life, to transform or overcome them, by directing them to a transcendent end, one not subject to human favour or worldly fortune. Such a blessing, moreover, must not only help us become more ‘open’, more ‘humble’, and ‘purer of heart’, it must not only afford us strength to accept and overcome the trials of life; it must also enable us to appreciate our new selves, because, such is our nature, that we can only rejoice over something when that something makes us feel or regard ourselves as in some way special, specially blessed.
Here we begin to recognize why the prophet and St. Paul exhort us to constant rejoicing: it is because of our Christian birthright! Because we belong to Jesus Whose Holy Spirit is forming us in Him as true children of the Father, we have a heavenly inheritance that makes us special, not of our particular human selves, as if we were of ourselves superior to and better than others, but because of the Lord Who died and now lives for us and we in Him, because of the Spirit Who guides us, because of the Father Who calls us. That is why St. Paul is able to tell us:
Rejoice IN THE LORD always. Again, I will say, rejoice!
Nothing whatsoever in this world can rob us of that birthright we have received through faith in Jesus, nor of the inheritance being prepared for us personally in heaven by the Father. Moreover, we rejoice all the more because we will -- by the Holy Spirit now at work in us -- ultimately be integral members of that eternal family where each one is appreciated for their own unique identity by every other member of that family, the family of God.
The early Christians -- those disciples who were closest to the Lord -- had a firm conviction that Mother Church is not of this world even though she exists in this world, because she exists for the Kingdom of God, that is for God’s Messiah and all those who -- thanks to her proclamation of His Good News -- will believe in Him Whom God has sent as Saviour. In Christ, the Kingdom of God has entered this world and that Kingdom continues both to endure and to grow through the ministry of Mother Church, with the result that, although Christians are flesh and blood of this world, nevertheless, their real life is ‘hid with Christ in God’, and their earthly living is for eternal beatitude. It was that overwhelming and transcendent joy and confidence that enabled the early Christians -- men, women, and even children -- to lovingly face up to the most atrocious persecutions. They were indeed special, for, having received a special birthright, they became -- as St. Paul most forcefully puts it -- a new creation:
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
There is, however, a modern, pseudo-spiritual, way of thinking that says it is wrong to regard oneself as special; it is wrong to think oneself different from, and in some way better than, others. Christians, true Christians -- such thinking goes – should esteem all men as good as, even better than, themselves.
Such talk, coming ultimately from the Devil, has -- as is usual with the Devil – an over-stretched and twisted grain of truth in it. The Devil did, after all, quote Scripture correctly to Our Lord in the desert, even though he had no right understanding of the words he so glibly quoted. It is like that here. It is true that we Christians are not to think of ourselves, personally, as better than others. That does not, however, in any way prevent us from considering, and firmly believing, ourselves to be wonderfully blessed by the fact that, of God’s great goodness, we are Catholics and Christians: gifted with the True Faith, whereby we can know Jesus in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist, and receive His Spirit given to us through the sacraments of Mother Church, herself our sure refuge and abiding beacon in this world, as we journey along the way to our heavenly home.
To pretend that good Catholics and Christians should not appreciate such shared gifts and the many individual blessings we have all received is the devil’s talk: talk that would rob us of the ability to rejoice, and would lead us to become ungrateful and unworthy beneficiaries of God’s great and merciful goodness.
What do you think was in Mary’s heart after hearing the angel’s message and receiving God’s only Son into her womb? The prophet had said:
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
Can you possibly think that Mary, the supremely holy and truly spiritual human being, thought to herself that it would be wrong to rejoice as if she was in any way special? The prophet had foretold, and the angel had assured her:
Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!
Can you imagine her saying: “I mustn’t think that He is with me more than He is with other people”? We know what she felt, we know what she thought:
My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour, for He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed, for He Who is Mighty has done great things for me, and Holy is His name.
Again, the prophet had gone on to say:
The Mighty One will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in His love, He will sing joyfully because of you.
Should Mary have closed her eyes and stopped her ears to that prophecy? Should she have thought it a sin to believe those words “He will rejoice over you”? Without such a joy and confidence in her heart how could she have faced up to the private trials and public opprobrium of the virgin birth?
Mary should indeed have been filled with confidence in God for she needed to be … she should have been filled with unimaginable gratitude and joy at the thought that God took great delight in her, because she had to be a perfect mother for God’s only Son.
And, for our part, how could we, dear People of God, do what Saint Paul tells us (Philippians 4:9):
The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me THESE DO, and the God of peace will be with you ,
if we were too holy to practice the Apostle’s other most pressing advice to:
REJOICE IN THE LORD always. Again I will say, rejoice!
We must not allow ourselves to be influenced by those who would condemn such rejoicing on the pretext that it is uncharitable, presumptuous, and proud; for those without faith, those who reject obedience to God, have no right understanding of the words they bandy about, they have no living awareness or appreciation of Catholic truth and the divine beauty reflected in what is spiritually wholesome and salvific. People of God, we can in no way live up to our calling without finding overflowing joy in, and taking supreme confidence from, our Christian blessings.
John told those who came to him at the Jordan that the hope they had in God must manifest itself in works, and today, Gaudete Sunday, we meet together to give witness to the whole world of the power and beauty of faith and life in Jesus, by the Spirit, for the Father.
Therefore, we need that supreme confidence and joy which led eleven ordinary Galileans, together with the educated Paul, to go out and teach the nations, ignoring mockery and overcoming torments. We need the strength of which Paul spoke when he declared (Philippians 4:13):
I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.
Dear People of God, do not let yourself be robbed of your birthright, cling to it with both hands, so to speak, and with all your strength of mind and heart. Hold in contempt the teaching of pseudo-Christians which, far from being imbued with divine spirituality, is tainted and poisoned by human pride and sanctimoniousness.
Rejoice IN THE LORD always. Again, I will say, rejoice!