This Sunday we are off to St Paul’s, Knightsbridge (not far from Harrods!), to hear the banns read ‘for the second time of asking’ of our youngest son Benjamin and his fiancée Kathryn. For us it will be an unusual experience – for none of our other three children have ever been married in an Anglican church. But it will also undoubtedly be a joyful experience – only just over three weeks to go before the wedding!
Appropriately enough this Sunday is also the third Sunday in Advent, which in the liturgical churches is often known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday. I confess that as a Baptist minister this terminology was new to me. However, gaudet’ is a Latin word and means ‘rejoice’. Gaudete Sunday takes its name from one of the lectionary readings for the day: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice” (Phil 4.4-6) – I am told that in some churches the opening introit is based on these words..
Gaudete Sunday is a Sunday for rejoicing. In my ignorance I had thought that every Sunday in Advent is a Sunday for rejoicing, but in fact traditionally the season of Advent – just like the season of Lent – is regarded as a ‘penitential’ period. On Gaudate Sunday, however, the penitential rites are relaxed – and fortunately so, for the Anglican priest who will be marrying Benjamin and Kathryn is taking us out for lunch on that day!
Liturgical niceties apart, for most people the period of Advent is about fun, feasting, and friends. It tends to be associated with happiness. By contrast Gaudate Sunday offers Christians to reflect on the nature of joy – and that is something different.
Happiness, it has been said, is about what happens to us. The nature of happiness is illustrated in an old Jewish story:
A man goes to a rabbi and complains: ‘Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?’ The rabbi answers: Take the goat into the room with you’. The man is incredulous, but the rabbi insists: Do as you are told and come back in a week’. A week later the man comes back, feeling half dead: ‘We cannot stand it. The goat is filthy’. The rabbi tells him: ‘Go home and let the goat out – and come back in a week’s time’. A week later the man visits the rabbi, and he is over the moon. ‘Life is beautiful, rabbi. No goat, only the nine of us’.
This is a story with a happy ending: for happiness is what happens to us when life goes well. By contrast joy is something much deeper. Happiness is dependent upon circumstances – joy is independent of circumstances.
We see this in the Apostle Paul’s command to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice’ (Phil 4.4). When Paul wrote those words, he was not a ‘happy bunny’. Life was not going well for him. He was in prison (1.13), and was no doubt chained to a Roman soldier. What’s more, he was on death row, facing imminent execution. To make things even worse, not all his fellow Christians appear to have been sad about his plight: rather they were happy “to make more trouble” for him while he was in prison (1.17). Life was not good, and Paul would have had every reason to complain against God: ‘God it’s not fair. Here I am – I have given my life to you. I have sought to serve you faithfully – and yet what do you do? You allow me to end up in a prison cell’. But instead of complaining, Paul was full of joy. His joy had nothing to do with his circumstances, but everything to do with Jesus. He rejoiced “in the Lord”.
Henri Nouwen wrote that happiness is dependent on external conditions, but joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death – can take that love away”. Joy can be present even in the midst of sadness.
Similarly Pope Francis said:
“To be happy is good, yet joy is something more. It’s another thing, something which does not depend on external motivations or on passing issues; it is more profound, It is a gift. To be ‘happy at all moments, at all cost’, can at the end turn into superficiality and shallowness. This leave us without Christian wisdom, which makes us dumb, naïve, right? All is joy…no. Joy is something else; it is a gift from the Lord.”
If joy is a gift from the Lord, then the Lord himself is our first and greatest gift. Gaduete Sunday is surely a good time to stop and reflect on the source of true joy.