Sunday, December 14, 2008

Gaudete Sunday and "The Romances"

(Third Sunday of Advent; This homily was given on 14 December, 2008 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and Philippians 4:4)

This morning I would like to tell you a story. In fact, it is a love story, a romance! Oh, don’t worry; it is nothing risqué. But it is a lovely story and one that I am sure you have heard many times before…but we’ll come back to that.

For now, I would like to begin with a few words about this feast we celebrate today. Our colors this morning are rose and the candle we light on our wreath is pink because today we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for Rejoice! We find that word in our second reading this morning, in St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Thessalonica. He says, “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). The entrance antiphon is from another one of St. Paul’s letters, in which he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). He repeats himself, just in case we missed it the first time!

What we rejoice in is that Christmas is just around the corner. We are less than two weeks away, and so we already begin to celebrate—in anticipation—that glorious coming of the Lord. But there is one important question we must ask ourselves this morning:

What right do we have, as Christians, to celebrate and rejoice?

With all the suffering and sorrow in the world around us, the trials in our own personal lives, and the brokenness we experience so often, are we not deluding ourselves? What right does St. Paul have to say to us, “Rejoice,” and what obligation do we have to follow such counsel?

To answer that question I would like to turn to the person whose feast day is celebrated today, and every December 14: St. John of the Cross. We do not observe his feast today because Gaudete Sunday takes precedence, but he is a saint who can teach us a great deal about joy, and about suffering (how very often those two things are found together in the lives of the Saints).

St. John of the Cross is a 16th century Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church. He had an intense and intimate relationship with God and he possessed a unique gift for communicating that relationship to others through poetry and prose. John was called by God, along with his dear friend St. Teresa of Avila, to reform the Carmelite Order at that time.

The Carmelites are a contemplative religious order founded on a commitment to God in silent-as well as communal-prayer. John’s attempt to bring the focus more completely back to this original foundation was met with much resistance. His own contemporaries rejected him, and even had him abducted and brought to the Carmelite monastery in Toledo, where he was placed in a tiny cell with little food, little water and almost no light at all. He was treated miserably.

Yet it was there, alone and in the darkness of that prison cell, that St. John of the Cross made a remarkable discovery. He found joy—even there, of all places—and understood well that our rejoicing in God is not dependent upon anyone or anything else around us. We do not depend upon the way others treat us, or on what is happening in the world around us, or on any other thing. Our joy, St. John of the Cross would attest, comes from God.

And there, in the darkness, John began to write the most beautiful poems about the depths of God’s love and the soul’s remarkable journey towards union with Him. We still have those poems today…

…which brings me back to that story I mentioned at the beginning of this homily! I said that it was a love story, a romance. It was written by St. John of the Cross and it is a poem which he himself entitled The Romances. It begins in heaven, as a dialogue of love between God the Father and God the Son. We are allowed to kind of eavesdrop on that conversation in heaven, and in that poem God the Father says:

“My Son, I wish to give you
a Bride who will love you.
Because of you she will deserve
to share our company,
and eat at our table,
the same bread I eat,
that she may know the good
I have in such a son;
and rejoice with me
in your grace and fullness.”

The Bride, of course, is us. We are the Father’s gift to His Son. But that gift is one that is incomplete because of the nature of God and because of our own human nature. God is pure spirit, existing from all eternity long before the material world is ever created. He is different from us.

We are made of body and soul, flesh and blood. We could never be fully united to the Son. The Father in The Romances recognizes this. He says:

“Now, you see Son, that your bride
was made in your image,
and so far as she is like you
she will suit you well;
yet she is different in her flesh,
which your simple being does not have.”

And so the Father proposes that the Son become like His bride. He will have a body, become flesh and blood like Her. The Son—of course—is delighted, as He is delighted in everything that the Father does. He cries out to the Father:

“My will is yours,
and my glory is
that your will be mine . . .
I will go and seek my bride
and take upon myself
her weariness and labors
in which she suffers so;
and that she may have life,
I will die for her,
and lifting her up out of that deep,
I will restore her to you.”

—St. John of the Cross
“The Romances”

That love story, that romance, of course, is the story of Christmas that we are even now anticipating and preparing to celebrate. It is the story of the God who sees our suffering and sorrow here on earth and chooses to become like us, to take upon Himself our suffering, our sorrows; He comes to die, and give us new life. He comes to lift us out of this deep and restore us again to God.

So that is why we rejoice on Gaudete Sunday! Our joy comes from that romance and that overwhelming story where we see revealed the great love God has for His bride, the Church. And to make sure we would never forget a story like that, to see that it would not simply remain a poem, something to be read aloud each year without ever touching us deeply and transforming us, the Bridegroom chose to make His love for us a sacrament. It is the Sacrament of the Eucharist which we are about to celebrate here this Gaudete Sunday.

Here we listen to the words of Christ spoken to His Bride, the Church. He says: “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.” He pours out His life for us and says: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood.” We become one with Christ here, we find the strength to get through any difficulty here. The Bride is united to Her Bridegroom here. That is why we rejoice even in the midst of afflictions on this Gaudete Sunday and we take St. Paul’s words to heart in his letter to the Philippians:

Gaudete, in Domino, semper!
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice!