What makes you rejoice?
It’s a fair question on this, the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy.
Rejoice always, says St. Paul in our second reading. What makes you rejoice – today of all days?
Many, maybe all of us, will rejoice once the COVID pandemic is controlled. Parents will rejoice when their children can go back to school. Restauranters, those that are left, will rejoice when they can fully reopen and welcome back their customers. People who work for airlines and hotels will rejoice when travel is safe again.
But I know that the most intense rejoicing, the type of rejoicing that brings tears, will be when grandparents and grandchildren can be united again with many hugs and kisses, and when families that have been separated can at last sit down to dinner at the same table again. On that day, love will be source of rejoicing. Rejoicing because someone you love and who loves you is present, embracing you as you embrace them.
But we are not there yet. And despite the good news about vaccines, it will be months or more before we can safely go outside of our COVID bubbles. Yet the apostle Paul tells us as he one told the church in Thessalonica, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks”.
We might ask: “How can we rejoice when our life is hemmed in by financial uncertainty, sickness, family challenges, our own mortality, and the constant vigilance asked of us during this crisis? It may be helpful to remember that when St. Paul wrote these words when he had been in prison for two years, uncertain whether he would live or die. And yet still he writes “Rejoice always’.
I think Paul gives us part of the answer in the very next line. “Pray without ceasing”. Pray without ceasing, so life becomes a prayer. Pray for joy in your life, yes, but Paul is calling us to make prayer the joy of your life.
Joy is not accidental or fleeting. It is not just pleasure in a good meal or the delight in your team winning. It is not induced by drug or drink. Rejoicing is not a superficial happiness based on circumstances or on the absence of trials. Joy is being secure in God.
As with reunited families and grandchildren, love is the source of rejoicing. Love requires a relationship between the lover and the beloved. Prayer strengthens our love relationship with God, who is the source of love. Prayer is the gift of knowing God in our lives. It brings us to the realization that the God of love is close to us, closer than our own skin. We are given the gift of seeing our lives in the hand of God, of talking with God, and listening to God. We open ourselves to be shaped and renewed. God wants to be the ‘joy of our soul’, to ‘clothe us in salvation and wrap us with a cloak of justice.’ There can be nothing more powerful or joyful.
Even more, prayer is about God’s commitment to us. The Lord of heaven and earth, the Savior of all the world, yearns and thirsts to spent time with you! Can you imagine anything more joyful? God always calls us to pray and our human response is always faulty, feeble, uncertain. God still rejoices in your prayer as he celebrates all hearts that turn to him. You are invited by this same Lord into this same joy. That rejoicing is the promise of prayer.
Making prayer the joy of your life takes work and commitment, of course. But ultimately prayer is joy. Prayer is the gift of being in the presence of God, of sharing with God, and of being renewed by God. It is the joy of recognizing that our lives are held in the very hand and grace of our loving Lord.
Sometimes we struggle to pray as we ought. It’s not always easy; sometimes we won’t seem to be making any progress. But if we stick with it, we will grow, and yes, we will get better at it. God’s own Spirit will teach us and fill us and lead us into deeper prayer. As we commit ourselves to pray and we accept the invitation to be closer to God, we grow. And growth, Christian growth, is always a joyful event.
Commit yourself to prayer by making prayer a part of your every day. Commit to a set time, maybe first thing in the morning or at the end of your day- a few minutes at first- to reflect on God’s providence in your life. Read scripture and pray that God opens your heart to what the Holy Spirit shows you. Pray throughout the day- short prayers of thanks or prayers to ask for help. St. Theresa of Lisieux once wrote that “For me, prayer is a burst from my heart, it is a simple glance thrown toward Heaven, a cry of thanksgiving and love in times of trial as well as in times of joy.”
Mary, as always, gives us the model of prayer. In her Magnificat, which we read today as the responsorial psalm, she prays: “My soul rejoices in my God; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” With Mary, we rejoice because God, the source of all love and love itself, is here in person. As it was with Mary, accepting God’s invitation is both a joy and a struggle. Rejoicing does not mean that we will never grieve or be depressed. It means we rejoice because God gives our life meaning and purpose. It is being secure in our prayerful love relationship with God.
Rejoice always, in every circumstance give thanks. Do not let yourself be anesthetized by self-absorption and doubt. Rejoice because you are in the presence of the God of love who is embracing you as you embrace him.
Pray without ceasing. We must rejoice!