By David Gibson | Catholic News Service
It is not mysterious at all that the church lodges an annual day of joy in the heart of Advent. The tone of this December day, called Gaudete Sunday, is set by the coming joyful days of Christmas, which the Advent season awaits.
But something is a little mysterious about joy itself. The entire notion of joy mystifies many. For joy is as difficult to define as the happiness it resembles. Am I joyful if I do not feel wonderfully alive and excitedly hopeful at every moment?
Some judge themselves harshly against an imaginary standard for joy, perhaps joy as they imagine it to exist in other people's lives. Here they suspect that they do not measure up.
Pope Francis gets this. He realizes that "joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty."
In "The Joy of the Gospel" ("Evangelii Gaudium"), his 2013 apostolic exhortation on evangelization, the pope said that "joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved."
Note how Pope Francis made clear his conviction that joy can coexist with "great difficulty" in life. A problem-free life does not define "joy."
He wrote, "The most beautiful and natural expressions of joy that I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to." He turned attention as well to "the real joy shown by others who, even amid pressing professional obligations, were able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith."
It is lamentable, though, he said, that "sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met." The lives of some Christians, he observed, "seem like Lent without Easter."
The road to joy is not paved by "narrowness and self-absorption," Pope Francis suggested. Neither is joy characterized by "naive optimism."
Instead, Christians are "challenged to discern … how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds" and to remain confident that the light of the Holy Spirit "always radiates in the midst of darkness."
Is it time to rethink the illusory image of joy that makes itself known too frequently -- a dispiriting image that makes us think we've missed out on joy?
The Scripture readings for Gaudete Sunday Masses in 2016 could aid this rethinking. "The coming of the Lord is at hand," they proclaim (Jas 5:8). A Christmastime of joy is visible on the horizon. But what will its joy feel like?
Think of the joy farmers feel after waiting patiently for a harvest and viewing "the precious fruit of the earth" (Jas 5:7). If their joy is not of the jumping-up-and-down, gleeful kind, it nonetheless is real.
Joy also is experienced when "the blind regain their sight" and "the lame walk" (Mt 11:5), the Mass readings suggest. This prompts memories for me of what it feels like when, after thinking long and hard about the right decision to make in a consequential matter, my eyes suddenly open and I see clearly the steps I should take.
It makes me think, too, of the quiet sense of satisfaction felt when a fearful, reluctant friend or family member -- possibly someone suffering the effects of an addiction -- takes the first steps into a more rewarding lifestyle.
Then there is the joy that, at least for a while, displaces other worries when someone close to us recovers from an energy-sapping illness. We rejoice as "feeble" hands regain strength and "weak" knees are firmed-up (Is 35:3).
Finally, when considering what joy looks like in real people's lives, think how the spirit soars when a desert bursts into bloom and the "parched land" sings (Is 35:1).
There are deserts in many lives. These deserts may assume the form of lifeless, damaged relationships at home or the loss of any sense of life's purpose. Joy of a special kind is experienced when hard work, renewed commitment and faith bring a desert back into bloom.
True enough, however, any of these forms of joy could bring on tears. But they will not be tears of despair.
Life typically feels more joyful when a sense of expectation pervades it. It is easier to relish life when we look forward to something, whether a birth, a new home, a child's return, a vacation or a reunion that promises time together with friends or relatives we seldom see.
This is what makes Advent unique. Advent looks ahead expectantly. It points directly away from despair and toward the joy that accompanies the Lord's coming -- not his coming into a perfect world but into the actual world we inhabit.
Pope Francis insisted on Gaudete Sunday 2013 that Advent joy is "not a superficial joy." It is the kind of joy that comes of being able to reopen our eyes, "to overcome sadness" and "to strike up a new song."
Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.
Surprised by new life at Advent
By Effie Caldarola | Catholic News Service
Almost 30 years ago, I volunteered at a pregnancy support program. Our office was in a ramshackle house in an old neighborhood. We offered free pregnancy testing, a big deal back then.
Grocery shelves were only on the cusp of stocking easy do-it-yourself at-home pregnancy testing kits. Instead, you made a doctor's appointment to confirm your suspicions.
So, a free, confidential walk-in test done on the spot was a gift, especially if you were scared, alone, poor.
Giving a woman her results was a spiritual experience. Either a negative or positive test could bring deep emotion -- fear, disappointment, joy, panic, loneliness, betrayal, relief.
It was moving to be with another in a moment of such deeply personal revelation. Ultimately, we wanted each woman to know she and her child deserved dignity and that we would help.
Advent and pregnancy have much in common. Advent is all about anticipation, a looking forward to a mystery yet to be revealed. Like pregnancy, Advent speaks to expectation, but not to certainty. Advent, like pregnancy, invites us into a hopeful future that lies before us wrapped in a cloud of unknowing.
The Jewish people did not know the Messiah for whom they waited. In him, they invested hope without understanding. Pregnancy brings that ambiguity, that hope in the unseen.
I experienced three pregnancies, two of which took me through Advent.
That's probably why, for me, the early words of Luke are among my favorite Scripture passages. Gabriel's visit to Mary is loaded with emotion. Imagine the fear and perhaps even panic of young Mary.
Despite the bold words of the Magnificat -- God "has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly," -- Mary's personal experience must have been similar to countless women before and since who have experienced a surprise pregnancy.
Someone is growing within me, a stranger close to my heart.
When the angel Gabriel delivers God's wish that Mary bear the Savior, he also reveals that her cousin Elizabeth is with child, "for nothing will be impossible for God."
Those consoling Advent words are soon followed by the two words in Luke's Nativity story on which I often dwell -- "in haste."
Those words describe how Mary journeyed from the north, down from her home in Galilee, to the hill country of Judah, or Judea, to visit Elizabeth. On the map, it doesn't look so far, but for a young girl on foot it was a daunting expedition to the arid land of her cousin.
"In haste" tugs at my heart, describing the rapid, anxious footsteps of a girl seeking solidarity with another woman, another woman also surprised by new life. My two daughters, named Elizabeth and Maria, remind me of this female alliance, this partnership of women.
During my days working at the pregnancy center, we were hoping for another child. Elizabeth was heading for kindergarten and no brother or sister had yet appeared in our future. We were disappointed but undaunted.
One day, things were slow at the pregnancy center and no drop-ins appeared. I knew that once again, this month offered hope for us, a hope that had been dashed many times.
I've forgotten exactly how those old tests worked, but I know it was very early for this particular test to be accurate for me. I gave it a shot anyway.
I remember that the positive strip was very pale. We probably would have suggested to a client that she come later for a retest. But I knew. I experienced a deep sense of presence that day, as if I were not alone in the little office any longer. It was as if my personal angel had appeared in that pale strip of paper.
I was being invited to journey yet again in expectation and mystery. During Advent, we each experience that invitation in different ways. With God, all things are possible.
Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.
A people of patience
By Paul Senz | Catholic News Service
It probably could go without saying that our culture today is largely one of instant gratification. It seems that with every passing week, there is a new fad or product that promises faster results, shorter waits, or more exciting features for those with short attention spans.
In many ways, patience is no longer considered a virtue -- the common perception is that patience should not even be necessary, because we should not have to wait.
In the liturgical life of Catholics, waiting is a foregone conclusion. Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. Perhaps a more fitting word to describe this season would be "anticipation."
There is so much that we are eagerly anticipating in the weeks leading up to the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. We await the coming of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us. We await Christmastime, with its family celebrations, gift-giving and general merrymaking.
And in this anticipation, we are called not simply to wait, but to be patient.
The third Sunday of Advent is commonly called "Gaudete Sunday." Gaudete -- rejoice! It might seem an odd thing that we are called to rejoice in the midst of the anticipation. We have been waiting so long, and we are not yet at the end. Why rejoice?
We rejoice because the wait is almost at an end. We know that we are near the fulfillment of God's promise, that he is coming to save his people from their sins. What better reason to rejoice could there be?
The second reading is from the Letter of James, which exhorts us to be patient. "The coming of the Lord is at hand," James tells us, so we must be patient, we must make preparations, as does the farmer who waits for the fruits of the earth.
In this passage, James also calls to mind our forebears. "The prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord" are exemplary models of hardship and patience.
And this could not be truer: If we look back at the stories recounted in the Old and New Testaments, what we hear is one overarching story of God's providence and steadfastness and countless examples of the need for his people to wait patiently.
We think of Noah and his family on the ark, waiting patiently for the rains to subside. We think of Moses leading the Israelites through the desert for 40 years, waiting to reach the Promised Land.
We think of Jonah in the belly of the whale, waiting for three days. We think of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Joel, Zechariah and the other prophets, calling on the people to wait patiently and trust in the Lord.
We think of Jesus and his incessant reminders that his time "had not yet come." We think of the apostles and disciples of Jesus, waiting for who-knew-what after the crucifixion and, following the Ascension, waiting for Jesus to come again.
And here, in that great tradition of holy men and women, we wait patiently, for the advent of our King. Gaudete -- rejoice!
Senz is a freelance writer living in Oregon with his family.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington and Mike Aquilina, in their book, "The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics," write that in the Middle Ages, Catholics occasionally observed Advent for only nine days, "representing the nine months that Jesus was in Mary's womb."
Today, Catholics can still partake in this nine-day tradition by praying an Advent novena for nine days.
According to Cardinal Wuerl and Aquilina, "the custom has become very popular in the pro-life movement, as it recalls the prenatal life of the Messiah, who was truly human from the moment of his conception."
An Advent novena:
Hail, and blessed be the hour and moment at which the Son of God was born of a most pure virgin at a stable at midnight in Bethlehem in the piercing cold. At that hour vouchsafe, I beseech thee, to hear my prayers and grant my desires.
(Mention your intentions here.)
Through Jesus Christ and his most Blessed Mother.