Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gaudete in Domino semper.

Gaudete in Domino semper - "Rejoice in the Lord always." This imperative from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians gives the Third Sunday of Advent its common name of Gaudete Sunday. Coming roughly halfway through Advent, Gaudete Sunday provides a special opportunity to take stock of one's readiness to welcome Christ when he comes into our midst. Having urged us in the strongest possible terms to rejoice in the Lord ("again, I say, rejoice"), today's reading from the Philippians also reminds us that we haven't much time to spare, for "the Lord is nigh." Our merciful God is ready to receive us. What, then, prevents us from hastening to meet him?

Father Alfred Delp begins the section of his Prison Meditations dealing with the Third Sunday of Advent by reflecting upon the meaning of happiness. According to Father Delp, the common understanding of "the happy state" as "contentment with one's lot" doesn't get to the heart of the matter. Writing from a German prison cell less than two months before his execution at the hands of the Nazis, Father Delp recognizes that few would regard his life as happy He also wonders whether anyone could truly be considered happy in a world torn apart by war:
As a matter of fact we may ask ourselves whether it is worthwhile wasting time on an analysis of happiness. Is happiness not one of the luxuries of life for which no room can be found in the narrow strip of privacy which is all we have left when war occupies almost the whole of our attention? Certainly it would seem to be so in a prison cell, a space covered by three paces in each direction, one's hands fettered, one's heart filled with longings, one's head full of problems and worries.
In spite of all this, Father Delp finds that his imprisonment has helped him to understand the true meaning of human happiness:
Yet it does happen, even under these circumstances, that every now and then my whole being is flooded with pulsating life and my heart can scarcely contain the delirious joy there is in it. Suddenly, without any cause that I can perceive, without knowing why or by what right, my spirits soar again and there is not a doubt in my mind that all the promises hold good. This may sometimes be merely a reaction my defence mechanism sets up to counter depression. But not always. Sometimes it is due to a premonition of good tidings. It happened now and then in our [Jesuit] community during a period of hardship and nearly always it was followed by an unexpected gift due to the resourcefulness of some kind soul at a time when such gifts were not customary.

But this happiness I am speaking of is something quite different. There are times when one is curiously uplifted by a sense of inner exaltation and comfort. Outwardly nothing is changed. The hopelessness of the situation remains only too obvious; yet one can face it undismayed. One is content to leave everything in God's hands. And that is the whole point. Happiness in this life is inextricably mixed with God. Fellow creatures can be the means of giving us much pleasure and of creating conditions which are comfortable and delightful, but the success of this depends upon the extent to which the recipient is capable of recognising the good and accepting it. And even this capacity is dependent on man's relationship with God.
Happiness in this life is inextricably mixed with God. Reading and thinking about these words, I recalled the "Atheist Bus Campaign" launched last year in Britain, which involved the placement on the sides of public buses of advertisements bearing the following words: "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The fact that some atheists equate faith in God with anxiety reveals an almost laughable ignorance of what religion is really about.

The sense of true happiness and joy that is a part of the Christian vocation comes from an understanding of who we truly are and how we stand before God. Father Delp points out that this understanding is fundamentally a private one, which perhaps partly explains why the inner joy that Christians feel is too seldom apparent to the world. As Father Delp writes, "The conditions of happiness have nothing whatever to do with outward existence. They are exclusively dependent on man's inner attitude and steadfastness, which enable him, even in the most trying circumstances, to form at least a notion of what life is about."

The challenge facing Christians in a secular society is essentially twofold. First and foremost, we must seek to nurture a deep sense of inner joy that can withstand the apathy, misunderstanding and outright hostility that often seems to surround us. Secondly, we must seek to live in a way that makes our joy evident to the world. As we continue to prepare ourselves to welcome Christ into our lives and into our hearts, we would do well to reflect on how we might better meet this twofold challenge. In thought, word and deed, may we more faithfully live out the call that comes to us today and every day to "rejoice in the Lord always." AMDG.


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