The Need for Joy
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. In the western Christian tradition, including Anglican, Roman Catholic, and various Protestant denominations, this day has become known as ‘Gaudete’ (Rejoice) Sunday. If you have an Advent Calendar in your home, it is likely that one of the candles may be rose (pink) coloured. This is the candle of joy, which we light on this Sunday.
The mood of Advent, up until the third Sunday, is typically one of watching, of repentance, and of taking stock of all the wrong that Christ’s coming must set right. Advent, as a sort of twin to the season of Lent, is somber. Advent, as Fleming Rutledge is known to remark, “begins in the dark.” This, as has already been mentioned multiple times in these reflections, is why 2020 has felt like one extended Advent.
And yet, here we find ourselves at Gaudete Sunday. A day in which we are called to ‘Rejoice in the Lord.’ Is this day merely a reprieve in the darkness of Advent? Are we to skip ahead to the celebration of Christmas for one day because we just can’t wait that long?
Actually, yes! Go ahead. Advent is not about pretending Christ has not come. So break out a bottle of wine and some of the Christmas chocolate and sing a carol or two. Advent begins in the dark, but we rejoice today because we know it does not stay there.
I want to conclude with a short reflection on joy written by Fr. Alexander Schmemman. Fr. Schmemman was an Eastern Orthodox priest and professor. He wrote a lot about the joy of the Lord. Here he reflects upon our need for joy. Of course, he is not implying that we can fake being joyful by burying our head in the sand and pretending everything is okay. Rather, he is summoning the church to embrace the presence of the Lord in our midst. The passage is very pointed and perhaps a bit unsettling, but I find it to be particularly fitting as we struggle to rejoice in the midst of this season of Advent:
“The source of false religion is the inability to rejoice, or, rather, the refusal of joy, whereas joy is absolutely essential because it is without any doubt the fruit of God’s presence. One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice. Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful. Outside of joy, they become demonic, the deepest distortion of any religious experience. A religion of fear. Religion of pseudo-humility. Religion of guilt: They are all temptations, traps – very strong indeed, not only in the world, but inside the Church. Somehow “religious” people often look on joy with suspicion.
The first, the main source of everything is “my soul rejoices in the Lord…” The fear of sin does not save from sin. Joy in the Lord saves. A feeling of guilt or moralism does not liberate from the world and its temptations. Joy is the foundation of freedom, where we are called to stand. Where, how, when has this tonality of Christianity become distorted, dull – or rather, where, how, why have Christians become deaf to Joy? How, when and why, instead of freeing suffering people, did the Church come to sadistically intimidate and frighten them?” (excerpt from “The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983”)
If the beginning of Advent is a summons to reckon with the darkness of the world and our own sinfulness, Gaudete Sunday is another sort of wake up call. And a much more important one. Today we are called to open our eyes to the goodness and the presence of the Lord, and to rejoice, because darkness and guilt do not have the final word.