How many of you take Scripture seriously? I mean, do you hear the words written in our Bible and feel compelled to obey what God is asking us to do through the sacred writers? You do? Well, then, here is what the Word of God calls us to do today: God, through St. Paul, commands us: “Rejoice always.”
You heard Him: “Rejoice!”
That’s the sentiment underlying today’s celebration of “Gaudete Sunday.” We as a church, as disciples of Jesus, are called to rejoice – and not just here and now, but “always.”
This year, when I see that we’ve been presented with countless reasons not to rejoice, it seems like a silly thing to put on pink and celebrate “Gaudete” Sunday and be commanded to rejoice as a religious duty. However, that is precisely what we are faced with. Turn on the television: the coronavirus has taken the lives of 1.6 million people worldwide and almost 300,000 here in the United States, and we are called to “rejoice”; the recent election has further polarized our nation and some people are even talking about rebellion, and we are called to “rejoice”; wildfires are destroying much of California and even other areas of our country, and we are called to “rejoice”; thousands, if not millions, of Americans have lost their jobs and face an uncertain future, and we are called to “rejoice”; every week we are faced with the possibility of not being able to go out to Mass, and we are still called to “rejoice.”
“Rejoice always,” St. Paul tells us. It’s not a suggestion, as if there is another option. However, it is not a naïve sort of ignorant bliss that God is calling us toward either. For Paul, there is a reason for this call to rejoice. In another place where Paul urges us to “rejoice always,” he adds this reason: “The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5). It is the nearness of the Lord that is the reason for our joy, and this nearness comes in spite of the darkness of our world – just as Christ came into the darkness of His world at Bethlehem, all those years ago.
The current existential and social threats to our lives and faith might feel like persecutions. Today, many often lament the "war on Christmas" - with secular demands for a "happy holiday" rather than "Merry Christmas." We see how the celebration of the birth of the Lord has become simply an opportunity for Macy's to gain customers and Katy Perry to sell albums, and we complain. "Let's keep Christ in Christmas!" "Jesus is the reason for the season!"
Certainly true. But the flip side of this grousing is that we can sometimes use "Merry Christmas" as an assault on others – a missile fired off in this "war on Christmas" from our end. Christians can look around and see where we are being pushed to the margins in an increasingly secular society. It's persecution, yes. But who else is persecuted?
Those who are different: the foreigner, the gay, the Muslim.
Those who are afflicted: the alcoholic, the addict, the sinner.
Those who are in need: the unborn, the elderly, the sick.
I know of a man who willingly associated with these folks. He was persecuted too. Maybe this is just where the Church needs to be in order to more faithfully identify with those most in need of God's mercy and love. To be near them is to be near to the Lord. And to be near to the Lord is our reason to rejoice – even always.
Throughout this year, we have also seen lights shining in our darkness. Amid the suffering and isolation of the coronavirus, we have seen frontline workers sacrificing to serve and care for the sick and vulnerable. In the divisive rhetoric of our current politics, we see people who are willing to advocate for peace and understanding across those differences. In the imposed “social distances” we see people, families, friends, reaching out through the blessing of technology to forge communities in new ways.
This year, we are commanded to rejoice, as we have been in years past. We are called to stand with the Lord wherever we find Him – often in the simplest and most marginal places. And we are called to rejoice because we are near to Him. This is a place of rejoicing, and it has nothing to do with external circumstances; it is all about being where Jesus is. There, we can sing the simple song of welcome to the One who comes into the world in a stable, because there was no room in any place of comfort. And yet, there in the manger, the greatest joy to the world was first proclaimed.