I’m sure that everyone has their favorite Christmas songs: “Jingle Bells”, “Deck the Halls”, “Carol of the Bells”. Whatever. I personally enjoy “Lo How a Rose” or some of the other traditional churchy Christmas songs. But what about your least favorite songs? My personal most loathed song out there is Andy Williams’ “It’s the Holiday Season.” I mean, what kind of good song gets away with lyrics like “doop-de-doop” or “dickery dock?” It’s just so cheery that it’s annoying. But really, for a lot of people, that’s what Christmas is about! Cheer! It’s festive, good-humored, and perky! But sometimes, it becomes shallow, hollow even. Because after those nice Christmas parties have gone, and after those nice gifts that we worked so hard to buy and wrap are opened, that cheer sometimes fades away.
So what are we looking for? The answer comes to us in the theme for today’s liturgy – we’re looking for joy. This Sunday is called “Gaudete” Sunday, a Latin word that means, “Rejoice!” It’s a word that’s used at least 7 times in our readings, and probably more depending on our songs. Joy is that complete satisfaction that comes when we possess something good. This “something good” isn’t something that feels good, tastes good, or looks good. Many of those sort of things in this world are temporary and fragile. Christmas lights burn our or crack. The Christmas tree eventually dies (if you have a real one) or takes up too much room (if you have an artificial one). The presents lose their appeal or get old. Even your grandmother’s favorite Christmas cookies with end up either in crumbs on the plate or hard as a hockey puck. Even things like success, health, friendship, 250 million dollar contracts, or even that feeling of being in love can go away. Circumstances change, times get tougher, the days pass by quickly, or we just get tired, and these things can slowly drift away.
But true Christian joy is something that never goes away, because it is that very thing for which we were created. We were created for joy! It’s in the very core of who we are – we long for something permanent. We want to be known and loved completely, unconditionally, and everlastingly. And even if we try to find that elsewhere (such as in Los Angeles), only God can fulfill that longing in our hearts. So that’s why our scripture readings don’t just tell us to “rejoice”, but to “rejoice in the Lord”.
Sometimes joy is a difficult thing to find. Times of pain, crisis and disaster can leave us without joy. Most of the time, it’s not even the disasters, necessarily, but those little things that pile up over time. If our lives are built on merriness and cheer alone, and simply on maintaining emotions and feelings, it becomes difficult for us to find our footing. But if our lives are based on a deep satisfaction that we possess something good – that goodness and richness of our faith and the goodness of a Father who loves us unconditionally and everlastingly – we are able to keep that joy deep rooted and flowing throughout our lives, even in the tough times.
It’s important to remind ourselves of that fact – that the Lord cares for us and loves us. And it can really be a challenge as well. But the second reading gives us the answer. It says, “Rejoice always.” (Ok, we got that part), and “Pray without ceasing.” What St. Paul is trying to teach us here is that real joy, the kind of joy that helps us through difficult times, is ultimately tied to prayer. This doesn’t mean that we spend the entire day on our knees, or that we are simply fulfilling what obligations we’re supposed to, but that we take at least a few moments out of our day to pray. Sometimes, we can be impatient or lost in prayer. We sometimes are seeking out cheer, emotions, or feelings in our prayer, and when those don’t come, we decide our prayer isn’t working and look somewhere else. But truly, our prayer is about a relationship to God, one just as real as the person sitting next to you, and speaking heart to heart with the one who loves us more than anything or anyone.
Sometimes we need things to remind ourselves of the cause of our joy. During Advent it can be easy because we’re surrounded by things like statues, lights, trees, and crib scenes. But after those things go away, we have to find other ways to remind ourselves. Maybe consider putting a religious image or article, like a rosary or a crucifix, somewhere where you’ll see it often – your morning mirror, your locker, work station or even as a background picture on your phone.
As we approach the Lord in the Eucharist today, as we rejoice in advance the coming of Christ at Christmas, let us examine our own lives to see whether we are people of cheer, or people of joy. And let us strive to reach out to the Lord, whose love and care never pass away.