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Third Sunday in Advent, Dec. 11, 2011 (3AdvB)
By Fr. Phil Bloom
Bottom line: Sadness is easy. Joy is a decision. St. Paul tells us we will find joy by praying without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstance and refraining from every kind of evil. Rejoice always.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent - also known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word meaning "rejoice." To illustrate this theme I would like to begin with a humorous story: A famous preacher was trying to teach his students to make their facial expressions harmonize with what they are speaking about. "When you speak of heaven," he said, "let you face light up, let it be irradiated with a heavenly gleam, let your eyes shine with reflected glory. But when you speak of Hell – well, then, your ordinary face will do."
We smile at this story because we all know it is easy to put on a long face. We have no trouble seeing on the negative.
I heard about a priest who visited a wealthy member of his parish. The man had a lovely home with a landscaped yard. The priest commented on beautiful it all was and how happy he must be. "Yes," said the man, but with a sad face he added, "look at those bushes. I pay good money to have them tended and that's what I get!"
Cynicism is the default position. On the other hand, joy can surprise us.
The same priest who visited that wealthy parishioner later served in a Latin American country. While visiting a rural community, a man asked him to come to his home. It was an adobe hut, but with a broad smile the man said, "Father, we have saved for a year to get this tin roof. Will you bless it for us?"
Joy surprises us. It shows up in unexpected places. It goes against the tide. Joy involves our whole being - which includes our ability to choose.
St. Paul says, "Rejoice always!" It's not a suggestion, like "cheer up, " or "look on the sunny side." It is, rather, a command, "Rejoice." Not only when things are going well. Not just when I am getting my way - but always. "Rejoice always." St. Paul can command joy because joy requires a conscious choice.
Now, I admit that this command is not an easy one for me. Like most people I can give in to sadness and depression. I am not talking about clinical depression which - thanks be to God - may be treated with medicines. I am talking about a kind of sadness that can quickly overtake us. Ninety-nine things might be going well, but we focus on the one thing going badly.
St. Paul does not tell us to wait until we have all our ducks in a row. He says, "Rejoice always." Fortunately, St. Paul explains how to do it. The first thing he says is to pray. When things go wrong, I tend to throw up my arms and get discouraged. Paul says, "Pray without ceasing." Even when things fall apart - especially when they fall apart.
So pray without ceasing. The second step to joy is gratitude. Paul says, "in all circumstances give thanks." Did St. Paul give thanks when his own people insulted him and physically attacked him? Did he give thanks when his boat capsized and he found himself drifting on a cold sea? Did he give thanks when a snake bit him? Maybe not immediately, but by prayer he saw God's hand at work. And he gave thanks.
Paul then adds something that seems obvious: "Refrain from every kind of evil." If you are involved in a sinful activity, you will not be happy. You will not be able to rejoice. For that reason we need to hear John the Baptist: "Make straight the way of the Lord." This Advent I encourage to make an examination of conscience – take a year-end inventory on your life. Then make a good confession. Confession can lighten one's conscience and a clear conscience leads to joy.
To sum up: Sadness is easy. Joy is a decision. St. Paul tells us we will find joy by praying without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstance and refraining from every kind of evil. Rejoice always. Amen.