Last Sunday was the Third Sunday of Advent; traditionally referred to as “Gaudete Sunday.” The name derives from the Introit of the day taken from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; I say again, rejoice!” The Latin for “rejoice” is gaudete, hence the name Gaudete Sunday.
Often when I preach on Gaudete Sunday, I begin the homily with a period of silence in which I ask people to think about four Christian virtues. I say four because I think that faith, hope and love will spontaneously — and rightly — come immediately to mind of most people. It is, however, the virtue that comes next in people’s minds that interests me. At the end of the period of silence I ask how many came up with joy as their fourth virtue. I don’t ask for a show of hands, but the response after the Eucharist is instructive; the vast majority of believers admit they didn’t list joy very high up in their list of virtues.
Given the fact the evangelists and Jesus so often refer to the centrality of “the Good News” to his ministry, one would expect joy to be the default response of believers. Once I did an unscholarly check of the New Testament to check things out. It was unscholarly because I just looked up nouns and those nouns were: faith, hope, love and joy. I didn’t look at the verbal forms — to believe, to hope, to love and to rejoice — since I could get a reasonably good picture from the nouns alone.
The results were only partially surprising. It was no surprise whatever that the nouns faith and love appear many, many times in the New Testament. I fully expected that. What surprised me was that, while the Greek noun for hope, elpis, appears 47 times in the New Testament, the word chara, joy, appears 56 times. Joy was something that the New Testament writers found to be important and a defining characteristic of believers.
This really shouldn’t surprise us. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) we find the Beatitudes in which Jesus describes his followers as makarios, whose primary meaning is happy. It is often translated blessed and, while that is not incorrect, the Greek word eulogētos is closer to the English word, “blessed,” than is makarios. Happiness and joy are integral parts of the Good News that Jesus has come to bring.
To be sure, the New Testament is not unaware of suffering. Each Gospel recounts in detail the crucifixion and death of Jesus. The Passion Narratives are a central part of the Gospel message. Paul stresses that the Christ he preaches is Christ crucified (1 Cor 2:2). Especially in Western Christianity, the crucifixion of Jesus has captured the religious and artistic imagination of believers to an extent not found in Eastern Christianity. The result is that at times it seems like Western Christianity has forgotten that none of the Gospels end with the Crucifixion. In fact, the Gospels all end with the Resurrection of Jesus.
When the Resurrection of Christ gets unmoored from or takes second place to the suffering and death of Jesus, the result is a very gloomy — even morbid — Christianity in which joy is at best suspect, if not frowned upon as something frivolous. This is a real loss. The attractive power of the Good News gets lost and the very nature of the Gospel message gets compromised.
The spread of the Gospel in Apostolic times was not because the message was negative and gloomy. Nor was it naïve. The Gospel message did not hesitate to preach Christ crucified, but that was not the end of the message. The Gospel preaches Christ crucified, but also raised from the dead, exalted at the right hand of the Father, and alive and present in the community.
Joy, therefore, is not merely one of the many Christian virtues. In a sense it is the evangelical virtue whose very existence among believers is the sign that they have received the Gospel — really Good News. It is what attracts people to want to learn more, not so that they, too, can be gloomy and morbid, but rather joyful.
CNEWA works in many parts of the world where suffering and sadness are overwhelming and everyday realities. In dealing with the often-desperate needs of people, it is easy to get caught up in the all-consuming and challenging tasks at hand. At least during Advent it is important to remind ourselves that, of the many services we provide, perhaps one of the greatest is to manifest and share the joy of the Gospel with the people we serve.