By: Carla M. Thomas, OP
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice” (Phil 4:4). Sisters and brothers Gaudete Sunday is here again. We have arrived at that time in the Advent season when we are meant to shift from measured hope that the “Lord is coming” to intensified confidence that the “Lord is near.” The theme of rejoicing reverberates throughout our readings and Responsorial Psalm as both an invitation and a command.
At any previous time, these words would have made sense easily as we readied ourselves to celebrate the nativity of the Lord in the spirit that usually accompanies this season of the year. However, 2020 is very different. The words of rejoicing in the readings are addressed to us at a time when our lived experience has been profoundly sobering for most of the year. We cannot ignore the fact that these words find us in the exile of physical isolation from much of what makes the season so meaningful – Mass, the sacraments, our loved ones. As members of the global human family, we cannot ignore the reality of loss and grief that will make this season so difficult for many households. As a Dominican Family and friends of Dominicans, we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters and the people of the Ukraine, especially in this Dominican Month of Peace, recognizing their work accompanying the victims of the ongoing war in the east of the country. There seems to be a tension between the sobering experiences of this year and the tenor of today’s liturgical celebration.
I would like to suggest that the first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah enables us to make sense of Gaudete Sunday this year. We usually reflect on the Gospel passage but I think the decision to focus on the first readings for once during this Advent season was timely.
Today’s first reading is found in what is familiarly called Third Isaiah (Is 56-66). Dated around the 6th century BCE, Third Isaiah addresses circumstances that are markedly different
from the first two sections of the book. In contrast to Second Isaiah, which reflects great optimism about the end of exile in Babylon and an imminent return to Jerusalem, Third Isaiah deals with the realities of this resettlement. Lawrence Boadt and other biblical scholars point out that there is a tension between “the vision of a renewed Israel and the plain, hard reality that the exiles found on their return.”1 They were not welcome by surrounding communities. They had to navigate the politics of the governor of Samaria and at the same time deal with their own internal issues of belonging and exclusion (Is 56), proper religious practices (Is 58), the sin of idolatry (Is 57) and so on. Third Isaiah reflects the frustration and disappointment of the people of Israel as they struggled to work out what it meant to be a people of God. At the same, it also reflects ongoing hope for future well-being and an abiding confidence in a God who “clothes with the garments of salvation,” “covers with the robe of righteousness,” and “causes righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Is 61:10-11).
Writing for The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Carrol Stuhlmueller breaks open the richness of biblical tradition associated with each of the key words in the first section of this reading. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me” (Is 61:1). The “spirit” indicates “the special action of God” and similar phrases can be found in Judges 3:10, 1 Samuel 10:6, Isaiah 11:2 and so on. The word “anointed” is “linked with preaching and hearing; it designates an interior enlightening to know God’s word and a strengthening to follow it.”2 In addition, the passage makes clear God’s particular concern for the lowly and vulnerable – good
news for the oppressed, healing for the brokenhearted, liberty for all held captive to personal struggles, and release for those imprisoned by unjust situations. Stuhlmueller notes that the word for “release” can also be translated as “light.”3 In other words, a message of light must be proclaimed that will lead the imprisoned from the darkness of their situations into the light of healing and wholeness. The proclamation of a year of favour signals a new opportunity for equity and bounty under the reign of God. This reading comes from the section of Third Isaiah that reverberates with the joyful hope (Is 60-62).
Today’s first reading reminds us that the story of Israel is one of crisis and restoration, hope alongside struggle and a sense of divine judgement that ultimately gives way to the experience of divine mercy. It proclaims a message of rejoicing in the midst of crisis because “God, the Holy One of Israel” will continue to love and act on behalf of the people as promised and manifested over and over again. The first reading proclaims that same message of rejoicing in our situation today. Our Dominican brother, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, articulates the tension this way:
What is special about Christian joy is that it is not opposed to sorrow. Many people try to live a hearty sort of joy, ‘Smile, Jesus loves you’, which suggests that all is fine. There is a lot of guilt about being sorrowful…But Christianity offers a joy which is large enough for sorrow…The opposite of joy for us is not sorrow but hardness of heart, a refusal to be touched by the sorrows and joys of the world.”4
Elsewhere he suggests that the joy for which we long “cannot be attained without a personal transformation.”5 It is the slow work of grace that only becomes possible when we try
to live Paul’s call to “pray without ceasing,” to “give thanks in all circumstances,” “hold fast to what is good,” and “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thes 5:16-18, 21-22). Another Dominican brother, St. Thomas Aquinas, concludes that only human beings possess a capacity for joy. He contends that animals can express delight but not joy because joy is that which we experience when “delight follows reason.” For him, the object of joy is an apprehended good that only the rational mind can grasp.6
We gather virtually around the table of the Lord as members and friends of the Dominican family. Therefore, it is fitting to remember that St. Dominic was known as “the joyful friar.” Blessed Jordan writes that “All men (sic) were swept into the embrace of his charity, and, in loving all, he was beloved by all…for he claimed it his right to rejoice with the joyful and to weep with the sorrowful.”7 This is the kind of joy that lies at the heart of our charism.
Today’s gospel challenges us to follow the example of John the Baptist “to testify to the light” (Jn 1:7), to draw strength from the often gentle and unobtrusive ways in which many have responded to this year of crisis, to have faith in the possibilities that lie ahead, recognizing that God is always doing a new deed, which will come to light. I think that this year also allowed us to confront the fact that the world has to move towards something radically new in regard to racial justice. There is a realization that there must be some change after the collective experience we endured this year. On a personal level, this will be different for each one of us. As we come to the end of this year, the readings invite us to remember who God is – as revealed in sacred scripture, tradition and our own personal experience. This confidence in God’s unending
love is the cause of our rejoicing – joy that is large enough for sorrow. The readings also invite us to remember who we are – our deepest identity. We are daughters and sons of the God-who-is-with-us always and beloved participants in the ever-unfolding work of grace.
O Wisdom; Lord and Ruler; Root of Jesse; Key of David; Rising Sun; King of the Nations; Emmanuel;
Come, Lord Jesus. Fill us with advent joy. Amen.
1 Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, Revised and Updated by Richard Clifford and Daniel Harrington (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012), 389. See also Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Loiusville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 170-72.
2 Carroll Stuhlmueller, “Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Roland E. Murray, O.Carm (London, England: Geoffrey Chapman, 1992), 346.
4 Bill McGarvey, “Busted: Timothy Radcliffe, OP” April 4, 2008, accessed December 11, 2020. https://bustedhalo.com/features/busted-timothy-radcliffe-op.
5 Independent Catholic News, “Full Text of Fr. Timothy Radcliffe’s Second NCP Lecture, Part 2,” accessed December 11, 2020, https://www.indcatholicnews.com/news/13280.
6 “Ministries, Charisms, Fruits – 15 Joy,” Godzdogz (blog), June 01, 2009, accessed December 11, 2020, https://www.english.op.org/godzdogz/ministries-charisms-fruits-15-joy. See also ST 1-11, q.31, a.3.
7 Blessed Jordan, “The Libellus of Jordan of Saxony,” in Saint Dominic: Biographical Documents, ed. Francis C. Lehner, OP (Washington, DC: The Thomist Press, 1964), §107, accessed December 12, 2020, http://www.domcentral.org/trad/domdocs/0001.htm