3rd Sunday of Advent: You Can’t Force Joy

Welcome to Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of joy.

If you’re not feeling particularly joyful, though, don’t worry. If, instead of joy, you feel frantic or stressed, dis-eased or lonely or sorrowful, it’s okay. You’re in good company. Despite the directive to rejoice and to light the pink candle on the Advent wreath, you can’t manufacture joy. And I don’t think forcing joy is the call of this Sunday anyway.

People have sometimes described me as a joyful person, and although joy is not exactly my default setting, I do prefer that feeling over sorrow or confusion or anger. However, over the past year I’ve been through a lot of transition – one thing after another has shifted in my life – and although I have experienced good things, I’ve also had some losses. When I can’t get my footing through the changes, it’s hard for me to find my joy. And if I’m not feeling it, I’m just not feeling it.

I don’t think it’s just me either. The secular holiday season began a while back, and with it came the expectations of happiness and idyllic Christmas scenes like the ones in Hallmark movies. For lots of actual people, though, this time of year and the pressure to feel joy is very difficult. Those of you who are grieving or have difficult family situations or struggle with job loss, financial difficulty, or serious illness – I see you. Joy may be hard for you to come by, too, and if that’s the case, give yourself a break. You can’t force joy.

Even though we can’t produce joy, I am encouraged by the Second Reading. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” I don’t hear this as a command so much as an invitation. I can’t force joy, but I can welcome it when it arrives. At least for me, even in times of sorrow, God does surprise me with little, unexpected moments of joy.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit New York and to be with some friends. We spent the day talking and laughing, and in the evening, we went to a Christmas parade. Families and neighbors gathered together in the cold, surrounded by the Christmas lights in people’s yards and the ones on the floats passing by. There was no pressure to feel joy, and yet, I did. Suddenly there it was, a feeling welling up from the depths, one I hadn’t felt in a while, and when I recognized it, I called it by name: Joy. Oh, there you are. I missed you. It just came over me, a feeling of delight in the present moment, a gratitude for the sheer gift of being there surrounded by people sharing a common experience.

I can’t force joy. However, as the Letter to the Philippians invites, I can lay my difficulties before God and receive the love and care God offers. And, when God gifts me with joy, I can welcome it and give thanks for it, because in periods of sorrow, a moment of joy feels like an enormous relief, a glowing light in a pitch-black night. I’ve learned to honor whatever feelings I have; to do otherwise is to slip into avoidance, and that’s just not helpful. We’re invited to bring how we are – our petitions and prayers – before God. However, I never want to be so shrouded with sorrow or stress that I miss joy when it arrives.

Also, it occurs to me that our call is not simply to rejoice but to rejoice in God. That is an act of trust. When I look to God as the source of my joy, I trust that God is with me, guiding me through a hard time to something better. I can rejoice in God because I know that out of every dying God brings rising.

This Sunday I will likely be wearing pink (or rose, as the case may be). I will not force joy, but I will honor whatever feelings arise in me. If one of them happens to be joy, I will open wide the door and welcome her in as a friend, give her a cup of tea (or wine), and enjoy her presence while she’s there.

So, I leave you with a prayer that God may gift each of us with small moments of genuine joy, and that you and I will welcome them as they come. I also leave you with one of my favorite memes of all time. I hope it brings you a smile, if not a bit of joy.

By Sister Leslie Keener, CDP

You can find the readings for this Sunday here: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/121618.cfm