Today is Gaudete Sunday, the day set aside for emphasizing the more joyful aspects of apocalypse and Christ’s return. The name comes from the Latin opening of one of the readings for the day, “Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say it again, rejoice.” It is the reason we light a pink candle today for the Advent wreath.
“Gaudete,” for me, is a hard saying; I am not good at rejoicing. But I would like to share today some of what I have learned about joy as I have wrestled with it over the years. I have encountered in churches an interpretation of joy that means suppressing any pain or sadness in a Thomas Kinkade-like fashion; from the start, I knew that either this was not joy, or I could not be a Christian – depression teaches that to a person. A more helpful (though not perfect) understanding of joy was that joy is a decision; it is not simply happy feelings, but a chosen orientation toward God and his universe. This made sense to me; I could not feel, but could choose. But I have come to see that, from a Christian perspective, there is a problem with this perspective as well.
The problem is in its individualism; we — and particularly we who are depressed — are often too emotionally and cognitively weak to set our faces like flint toward joy; simply “willing harder” when one finds oneself joyless is a matter of setting oneself up for frustration. That is why I am so happy for the Christian liturgy. The liturgy is among other things the communal commemoration of the joy we look to in Christ. Joy, I have found, is not a matter of suppressing things, nor is it a matter of willing harder; it is an act of throwing oneself in the way of a community, the church, that carries on the legacy of Christ’s hope and joy even when few of its individual members may feel it personally. This is of course an act of faith because we many times have to trust in the vicarious joy of other Christians past, present, and future, when we can’t feel it ourselves – it is throwing ourselves in the way of what we hope for. So, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, I can say “gaudete” in faith that God will bring it about, even when I can neither feel nor will it for myself.