This Sunday, the third Sunday of the Advent season, is called Gaudete Sunday. Likewise, the fourth Sunday of Lent is called Laetare Sunday. Both “gaudete” and “laetare” are Latin terms for rejoicing, with the former emphasizing more rejoicing at attaining a glorious goal and the latter more emphasizing joy at overcoming some struggle or suffering. In both cases, the Church is calling for people to live in Christian joy, as opposed to indifference or the false happiness of the world. This calling is rooted in the Bible, which refers to joy and rejoicing 500 times. For example Mary’s famous canticle begins “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior”; and St. Paul tells the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again rejoice.” See Luke 1:46-47; Phil. 4:4.
This Christian joy is not mere earthly contentment or pleasure. Rather, as C.S. Lewis points out in his autobiographical book Surprised by Joy, true Christian joy involves a sense of the divine in our lives, whether directly or (as he first experienced joy) indirectly through seeing this glory reflected in such things as nature, good culture, and especially in other people. Or, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, joy comes from the overflowing of Christian love. See Summa Theologica II-II question 28, article 1. And, as both of them point out, this Christian joy is not at all inconsistent with sorrow. For, if we love someone else, and above all else love God, we will have a joy in our heart, but also a willingness to feel sorrow at sin and whatever causes the beloved to suffer or be less honored. See Summa II-II question 28 article 2. As C.S. Lewis describes, this joyful sense of divine glory on earth leads us to long for this union completely and forever, a longing no earthly power can give.
And so Christian joy does not leave us merely comfortable or content on earth as popular culture would try to do. True joy instead leads us to the challenge of a life Christ, who is Emmanuel, God with us. The choice of joy is thus a demanding choice. It requires us to open our lives to God, to turn from ease and comfort and pursue the longing that He alone can fulfill. It can be tempting to seek instead the cheap imitations of easy pleasure or worldly contentment, to take refuge in one’s own little shelter of skepticism and self-security. But these refuges cannot bring peace, fulfill our truest desires, or last forever. Only the adventure of joy, the adventure that goes from the prophets to the manger to the cross, only that adventure leads to never-ending glory.