A reflection on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent — December 12, 2021
Imagine, for a moment, that you are unjustly imprisoned, far from home, and prevented from doing the work to which you were called. But during this experience, you are given the opportunity to write to family and friends. What message would you choose to communicate to them? Would you focus on your own plight, or on offering them encouragement and insight?
This is the situation that St. Paul found himself in when writing to the Church in Philippi. He was unjustly imprisoned when he wrote the words we heard proclaimed in the second reading, words which call us this Sunday to joy:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
How was Paul able to maintain this joy and peace? Even in the midst of his own suffering and imprisonment, how was he able to encourage the Philippians to be joyful, too? The reason for Paul’s joy is what we’re invited to ponder today.
The Church calls this third Sunday of Advent “Gaudete Sunday.” The Latin word “Gaudete” means “rejoice,” so today the Church is inviting us to rejoice because we are one week closer to the celebration of the birth of our Savior. We are therefore one day closer to Christ’s glorious second coming at the end of time–a profound source of joy for us still today.
But we all know that it is not always easy to imitate St. Paul in rejoicing. The struggles and anxieties of daily life–especially if we feel that our lives are not going well–can make it difficult to rejoice. How can we find joy in daily life? The key is found in our Scripture readings today.
These readings have an important common thread: the source of our joy is not only in our hope for something that has not yet happened, but even closer. The prophet Zephaniah says, “The Lord is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.” And then he repeats the same words, “The Lord is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in your love…” The sung response is from the Prophet Isaiah. In the last stanza we read, “Great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!” And then St. Paul reminds us, “The Lord is near.”
What is the key then to finding joy? The key is to develop a deeper awareness of the presence of God “in our midst,” in our daily lives, and to learn how to live in the loving presence of the Lord.
How does discovering the presence of God in our lives bring us joy and peace even in the midst of troubles? God is love. And because God is love, His presence brings light, peace, calm, and sweetness. God’s presence doesn’t bring darkness or discouragement; His presence brings peace, joy, encouragement, and love.
Therefore, even though we may be suffering, if we learn to become aware of God’s presence we will still be able to experience joy. God’s presence can bring us joy even in the midst of suffering and pain.
God is always present to us, every moment of every day. But it is when we seek to be aware of His presence that we have the opportunity for joy. Living in the presence of God brings the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding” of which St. Paul wrote. But how do we discover and deepen our awareness of God’s presence in our lives–including in the difficult parts of our lives? How, ultimately, do we live in God’s presence?
Allow me to suggest some ways that you can become more deeply aware of God’s presence in your daily life:
First, prayerfully read a little Scripture every day. Reading the Psalms, in particular, is a powerful way to become aware of God’s presence, including in times of great suffering and pain.
Second, set aside time each day to talk to the Lord from your heart as a friend talks to a friend. The more you talk with the Lord, the more you’ll be aware of His presence.
Third, be grateful. Each day when you pray, recall the blessings that God has given you, and then tell Him how grateful you are for them. This prayer of thanksgiving will help you to be more deeply aware of the Lord’s loving presence in your life.
The more you become aware of God’s presence, the more you will seek to be in God’s presence. The more you live in God’s presence, the more peace and joy you will have, even in the midst of difficulties. You will be able to rejoice, just as St. Paul did. During the remaining days of this Advent season, let us all learn to better recognize God’s presence in our lives by spending prayerful time with Him there. He is Emmanuel, God with us, and He is always near.