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Third Sunday of Advent

Gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria Vergine! Gaudete!

Rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary! Rejoice! 

Gaudete,” meaning “rejoice” in Latin, is the theme for our third Sunday in Advent. This word is taken from Paul’s letter to the Philippians,

chapter 4 verse 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”

But does rejoicing in the third Sunday in Advent, when we are still waiting for the birth of Jesus (even if we know what happens already) not seem preemptive? I find myself asking, is it not too early to rejoice?

There’s an urgency as we await the birth of Christ. During what I consider to be one of Manhattan’s busiest seasons, I notice the extra urgency that our neighborhood and our city impresses upon us. I’m rushing to finish my final exams, to finish this sermon, to send out all my Christmad cards, to make sure everything’s ready to travel for the holiday, that all my gifts are bought!

We’re waiting for Christmas to come, it often feels like, so it can be over.

We want to get to the part where all the cards are mailed, all the gifts are opened, the morning Christmas service has been celebrated, and we get to take a Big Christmas nap! Or at least know we won’t be caught in the throes of peak tourist season or SantaCon.

But what might it look like to cherish these moments leading up to the Christmas holiday, and especially to the birth of Christ, a little bit more — so we might rest in them as well?

In his 2014 Gaudete Sunday homily, Pope Francis said that Gaudete Sunday is known as the “Sunday of joy”, and that instead of fretting about “all they still haven’t” done to prepare for Christmas, people should “think of all the good things life has given you.”

I like this image, as difficult as it may be to envision when we’re already so stressed.

But – you may ask – what is joy? What is Pope Francis even talking about, when there’s so much to do and things to remember and sermons to write and cards to mail and finals to finish and bills to pay?

Is joy a cup of coffee or a piece of chocolate, a moment alone or of quiet when your kids aren’t clamoring for attention or the subway isn’t totally packed during rush hour?

Theologian Thomas Aquinas described the difference between joy and happiness.

Happiness is the final end of man, eternal contemplation of God, which is an act of the intellect. It’s essentially man-made and can be achieved “on our own” through doing things we enjoy for the sake of our own benefit.

Joy, however, is itself not a virtue, but is an effect of the virtue of charity, or love. The act of giving one’s self, for the sake of others, or for the greater good of humankind, sparks joy, to quote Marie Kondo.

But who else does that sound like? Giving one’s self for the sake of others?

Joy is not manufactured, it is bestowed, and only through a true breakthrough of love.

So, what makes joy different from happiness?

The distinction brings to mind the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ.

The very notion that Christ was born & died for us, that we ourselves might be saved from sin & grow closer to God as God’s own children – is that not something worth rejoicing in, in feeling and knowing the joy of God’s love?

Now of course, I’m getting ahead of myself here when it comes to our liturgical seasons, you may say. But Advent is almost Lent-like, if we can let it be – the church life is cyclical – in experiencing the waiting twice a year, there’s a need for rest, for pausing, for coming into that joy through Christ.

The waiting in this season of Advent is to remind ourselves that through the recollection of the birth of Christ we might remember Christ’s true divinity and the need for his resurrection and our redemption.

That’s similar to what Paul’s noting with his letter to the Philippians. He wrote this letter as a word about his upcoming sentence in Rome, and of his optimism in the face of death.

He was imploring the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord despite one’s circumstances, just as he did, and as others of the Christian faith did, have done, and will continue to do.

He gives the Phillippians the reminder to rejoice in the Lord with the conviction that his and their salvation is within Christ, and through Christ, and Christ’s works are what will redeem us all.

Our reading from the Gospel of John for this Sunday also lays this claim, as it describes the mission of John the Baptist through the eyes of Jesus, connecting John even deeper with Advent.

Jesus praises John, as he is out in the wilderness and in the world heeding the call from God. He’s not wearing a golden – or even a white – robe, nor is he loudly condemning sinners. He’s not doing anything beyond the simple act of baptism – of bringing people to water and recognizing their divinity.

Jesus knows this, and emphasizes how John is conducting the work God has called him to do, and is in dialogue with the ways Jesus engages the community in the same manner of grace and love.

Jesus is reminding us that those who act on their recognition of humanity and the need to do good works are those who will sustain us.

They are the ones who will bring us joy, and the places they create are the spaces where joy can enter in.

We can’t simply slip into complacency or avoidance – that’s not what God is calling us to. It takes action, real, tangible, communal action, to create joy.

It’s easy to hope & to believe that God is near solely through partaking in the Eucharist, but time & time again we see the way Jesus calls us into action – the way Jesus is begging us to recognize the means by which we too might experience joy.

Think about our country at this moment. In the midst of a battle over queer rights, same sex marriage is slated to be codified into law. It took a majority of House and Senate to make that happen – along with countless voices calling for it to become a named reality, for the joy of families and communities to feel safe and secure within that codification.

During such a volatile and uncertain time for our country, where joy often feels far and hatred is creeping in, Rapahel Warnock won his Senate seat, giving (to my knowledge – despite all things I’m anything but a politician or lobbyist) Democrats the Senate and a fighting chance at equity and justice in our country. He couldn’t have done that without this community, near and far, rallying around him, and empowering others.

Warnock said that a vote is like a prayer, and I think there are many actions that contain the same righteousness and God-guided action.

If joy is achieved through the works of charity enacted with inspiration from God, caring for our neighbors through programs like Saturday Kitchen or even voting for someone who will protect our most vulnerable neighbors are a substantial opportunity for joy for ourselves as well as our community.

I’ve talked a lot about what we *can do* and what we *have done,* but I also recognize it’s taken a lot to get to where we are right now, and we’re likely pretty exhausted.

With that, I think it’s also really powerful to realize just how amazing it is to notice all these opportunities that have shown themselves in the acts of community and country to care for each other, as well as in the silences in between where we might feel God’s presence and know God.

While we ask for more, and continue to do more, can we not find joy in celebrating these achievements?

Rest itself is an act of charity, and a means for joy, especially at this time. We might feel closer to God as we make room for these sacred pauses.

I have seen the means by which this congregation touches joy, especially as we are embodied, full, and entering in with our complete and messy selves.

I’ve watched the way this congregation has continued to be refreshed and reinvigorated by one another, by living in the image of God.

Last week, our “mini-bazaar” raised over 500 dollars for the Masaka Association of People with Disabilities Living with HIV/AIDS and even more money for Saturday Kitchen.

We also celebrated the Jollys before their departure to their Australian homeland, and moved right into conversations about the Saint Nicholas Gift Drive, the Greening of the Church, and the Christmas Pageant and Brunch.

That’s a lot of work, done with the intention of seeing the God-given dignity of our neighbor, and of cherishing this community we hold so dear.

There’s also silence as we take more time during our service to pray silently, to look at the images in our stained glass, and to let God enter in.

This joy we’ve created can be our restoration and our hope, too, as we love our neighbors, our community, ourselves, and God. The world is a dark and scary place, but I find optimism to be a means by which I can be refreshed. Sometimes – most times – I need someone else to remind me that this optimism is part of being reinvigorated, so I can do the hard work. And I find that here, with each of you, and I find it as I continue to pray and remember the birth of Christ, While we continue to patiently await, we can also remember that when Christ comes – Gaudete!

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