For every Mass the Church provides a text, usually from Sacred Scripture, to be sung during the entrance procession. This text is referred to as the Entrance Antiphon. It’s purpose is “to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal n. 47). This Sunday the Entrance Antiphon is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” It is from this text, and particularly St. Paul’s command to “rejoice,” that this Sunday takes it’s name: Gaudete Sunday. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” In Latin: “Gaudete in Domino semper.”

Two things are worthy of note. First, St. Paul doesn’t encourage or suggest that we rejoice—he commands that we do so. He commands that we do so, moreover, not just for a period of time, but always. At every moment, both in time and in eternity, we are to rejoice. Second, St. Paul tells us what, or rather who, we are to rejoice in: “the Lord” and the fact that he “is near.” 

These two aspects of Paul’s command are taken up and continued thematically in our readings. Our second reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians repeats this command almost verbatim: “Rejoice always,” St. Paul says. Who we are to rejoice in—the Lord—is reiterated by our first reading and responsorial psalm. The anointed one in our first reading proclaims: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.” In the responsorial psalm, the Church places on our lips Mary’s joyful words of praise from the Gospel of Luke: “[M]y spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

There shouldn’t be any doubt, then, what mystery the Church is inviting us to reflect on this weekend. But the question is, what does it mean to rejoice in the Lord? And how are we do this always?

Joy, St. Thomas Aquinas says, is an effect of love. And we experience joy when we are with the one we love or, if they are absent, if we at least know that they are doing well—doing well physically, but especially spiritually. We experience sorrow, on the other hand, when we are not with the one we love or when they are not doing well. If there’s someone we love that we can’t be with this Christmas, for example, we may be sad, but if we at least know that they are doing well, we will experience some amount of joy. And if there is someone we love that we can be with at Christmas, but they are not doing well, we will have at least some joy because we are with them, even if our joy is diminished by their condition. This is pretty simple and straightforward. And it makes perfect sense of our experience.

It also helps us understand how it’s possible to rejoice in the Lord always, even when things are dark and difficult. If we love God, St. Thomas says, then as Scripture tells us, we abide in God and God abides in us (1 Jn. 4:16). In other words, if we love God, then God is with us. And God is always doing well. He is goodness itself, and so He is never doing better or worse than He always is. He is always perfectly good. Therefore, it’s always possible to have joy in God, no matter what situation we are going through. If we love God, God will be with us, and we will experience joy in Him. It’s that simple. So, if we lack spiritual joy in our life, the first question we should ask ourselves is, “Do we love God?”

“If you love me,” Jesus says, “keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Keeping the moral law is the first step to experiencing spiritual joy. The one who does not keep God’s commandments cannot say that he or she loves God. This is why our gospel which, at first glance, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with joy, actually has a great deal to do with it. John the Baptist, our gospel says, “came for testimony, to testify to the light.” In the gospel of John, light is not only a symbol of Jesus who says, “I am the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12), but a symbol of living according to the truth, of doing good and avoiding evil (Cf. Jn. 3:19-21). John the Baptist came to testify to the light—to testify to Jesus and to the good deeds that prepare the way for His coming. This is why John preached a message of repentance and why this message was actually good news, although it was challenging. The need to repent, to do good and avoid evil, might not always sound like good news, but it actually is, because it is the first step toward experiencing spiritual joy.

But it is also just that—the first step. God has more joy in store for us than just the joy that comes from keeping His commandments. Just one chapter after Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments,” he says, “I no longer call you servants, but friends” (John 15:15). We are called to love God not only with the heart of a servant, but with the heart of a friend. And this means taking time to grow in His friendship, especially through prayer, the sacraments, and works of charity. When we see God as a friend—and not just a friend, but in fact our best friend—then it will finally make sense to us how we can experience joy in God even in the darkest and most difficult circumstances. We know from experience that when we are filled with sorrow because our loved one is not with us or our loved one is not doing well, our sorrow is lifted somewhat when a friend is with us. And this is what God can be for us if we love Him, not just with a heart of a servant, but with the heart of a friend. When we love God with that kind of love, He will be with us, even in the darkest and most difficult circumstances, and we will experience spiritual joy.

Finally, when we are friends with someone, we seek to love those whom they love: their circle of love becomes our circle of love as well. And when this comes to God, this ultimately means loving everyone—even our in-laws, even those with whom we disagree politically, even those who do us harm. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your heavenly Father” (Mt. 5:44-45). If we want to experience the fullness of spiritual joy, we must love not only with the heart of a servant and the heart of a friend, but with the heart of a child—a child of our heavenly Father.

A servant waits at the table. A friend has a seat at the table. But a child is in his father’s arms at the head of the table. Joy comes from being with the one we love. If we love God with the heart of a servant, we will be with Him, be He will remain at a distance. If we love God with the heart of a friend, we grow closer to Him. But if we love Him with the heart of a child, we will rest next to His heart. This is the path to joy: first be a servant of God, next be a friend, but ultimately be a child. If we follow this path the rest of this Advent Season, we will know the joy of the Christ-child, Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.