“I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul”
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
“He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”
Joy is not happiness. One could easily miss this wisdom at this time of year in the consumption and indulgence of mass American culture. On this Gaudete Sunday in Advent, we are reminded of a different message. Namely, that joy rooted in our relationship with God enables our perseverance in the world despite its darkness. Our cyclical liturgical life invites us to come back around to lessons like this each year, but it only does the work of “traditioning” us if we’re paying attention. Can we be summoned by John the Baptist’s testimony to the light? Then, perhaps, we can distinguish between joy and happiness.
This has taken on heightened significance for my wife and me this Advent. We have been slogging through the mire of pediatric depression with one of our children.[i] We recently moved and all three of our children have struggled at various points. They are on the outside looking in at school. Their friendships beyond our family are still developing. One of them has suffered more for many reasons. Susan and I have reflected deeply on our journey with this precious one for the last few years and we can see the ways that all the relationships with friends and teachers, our child’s network, and the many, many strengths that each one of them has developed have protected our family. They have allowed our child to find light enough to balance learning and a war with the dark as she struggles to maintain all too fragile self-esteem.
Our child’s pain has been palpable. As I told our other children sometimes a person’s sad emerges as deep, uncontrolled rage. It has been hard to live with and even harder to parent as the dark in which our dear one lives envelops our home and the relationships with those closest to us. This is not the space to talk about the details. Many remain too painful, but I can tell you that this has been a difficult season in our lives as parents and as a couple. We share communion with each other and with this child whom we so deeply love. That communion has meant a share in this depression, too.
In the face of these circumstances, I find my prayer and my reflection tilting toward requests for relief and away from asking God to be with me. I find myself asking for the easy comfort of the immediate change in our circumstance. God, make all these things different, now. It never ceases to amaze me that even with intellectual commitments to favoring God’s presence and accompaniment, this need for medicinal belief persists within me too. When I am really honest with myself, I can feel and know the ways that I fall prey to it. Depression, grief and loss, major illness, and tragedy all unveil the precarious nature of a relationship with God relegated to the quid pro quo. It shifts our very understanding of God. Instead of accompanying us in a time of great trial, reading these texts in this way does more than conflate happiness with joy. It conflates God with Santa Claus. Happiness is fleeting, externally driven, and dependent on positive results and an end that is not God. Yes, the alleviation of suffering is important and, yes, God does not want us to suffer, but in the Christian tradition, the alleviation of suffering is not the end. It is the byproduct of salvation and that comes through relationship. Life with God is the end. That is the goal.
The Latin phrasing of the introit for this Sunday, or portion of scripture (usually a psalm) that begins the Mass, contains the words “Gaudete in Domino semper” or the opening pericope of “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” drawn from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4:4.[ii] In this third Sunday of Advent, we recognize that God is, indeed, near. This is or should be the cause of our rejoicing.
The readings demonstrate that relationship with God will bring about a change in the world. In Isaiah, God makes “justice and praise spring up before all the nations.” In the Magnificat, which is our psalm of praise for the week, God transforms the social order raising up the lowly and throwing the rich down from their thrones. In 1 Thessalonians, God’s presence through Christ in all of us sets the world on fire with “prophetic utterances” and makes us holy in our entirety – “spirit, soul, and body.” These are visions of nothing short of the total transformation of the order of things – our world and all of us – work that has already begun and is not yet fully realized. I find the words of John the Baptist haunting in this light: “but there is one among you whom you do not recognize.” As a Christian, I know the end of the story and still I struggle to rejoice in the nearness of the one who created me.
In the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, easy and painless comfort often delineates our faith commitments.[iii] We can be very quick to read past, reinterpret, or forget altogether the circumstances out of which those words originated. Paul was in prison when he wrote the words to Philippi from which this day draws its name. The context of Isaiah’s codification is the forced migration and enslavement of Israel in Babylon. The message to the community for which the Gospel of John was written landed in a world in which the Temple, the center of faith life, was destroyed. For people living in captivity, for those in prison, for a people whose world is in ruins, it is a challenge to “rejoice always,” to lean into the relationship by “Pray[ing] always.”
Prayer gives shape to our belief. I begin to image God from the way that I pray. As I shared above, when I privilege an end to suffering and not the one who alleviates suffering, I can miss the point and, ironically, the relief that comes through relationship. Prayer transforms a static notion of tradition into what theologian Orlando Espín calls “traditioning”…what occurs when we understand tradition as a verb or process much more than a content.”[iv] Traditioning happens through relationship with God for the sake and salvation of the human community. It really cannot be separated from our daily lives when our practices are marked by compassion, or as the term means in Latin, enduring with another.
How are we as a Christian community traditioning joy on this third Sunday of Advent?
“The People of God,” Espín writes, “are given their identity by their shared hope and by their shared faith – their bet for hope… Their hope and faith will be credible if they truly and demonstrably live compassionately and as builders of a compassionate world.”[v]
I have often thought about the ways that Susan and I are handing down faith to our children especially in light of these deep challenges. Advent prayer time as a family has seemed to me more like a chore than a joy of late, but Susan has held steadfast to our practice. It is a challenge to reflect on my life and our life together as a prayer, as a testimony to the light, in the midst of my failings, misgivings, and insecurities. Yet leaning into those elements of my brokenness, of my family’s brokenness, and expecting quick relief is the counsel of the darkness. I hope and I pray that there is something deeply meaningful in enduring with each other right now, but I confess that I do not always see it or feel it. The path forward in joy is to hold on to relationship with the One who created us and who continually renews us, even and especially when we struggle to recognize the joy in our midst.
[i] I use the clinical designation for what my child is experiencing intentionally for important reasons. First, I believe that our theologies and theological reflection does not adequately address mental illness. Like other contexts in our society have been prone to the same stigma and shame that accompany navigating mental illness. Second, I share it because I know that we are not alone. I have written elsewhere about the fact that I have worked with children and adolescents as a clinical social worker. It is a well-documented fact that this is a particularly difficult time of year for those suffering with depression. The discussion that is not happening is the fact that it is very hard work to accompany someone, especially your child, when they are in the midst of the storm. It is for all of you that may be experiencing this same moment in your family life that this is written.
[ii] If you would like to read a thorough and complex liturgical history of Gaudete Sunday, please see: John F. Romano, “Joy in Waiting? The History of Gaudete Sunday,” Mediaeval Studies 72, no. 1 (January 2010): 75–124.
[iv] Orlando O Espín, Idol and Grace: On Traditioning and Subversive Hope (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2014), 8.
[v] Espín, Idol and Grace, 130.
John DeCostanza, Jr. is the Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. He is an ecumenical D.Min. candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union where his study concentration is Hispanic Theology and Ministry.