“Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart!” “Shout with exultation, O city of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!” “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”
The ancient name for this Sunday is “Gaudete Sunday”, literally “Rejoice! Sunday.” It is taken from the first word of the entrance chant for the Mass: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” Our readings remind us over and over again of the command to be joyful. It seems appropriate, then, to reflect upon Christian joy.
Joy, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, is caused by love. Love delights or takes pleasure in the goodness of its object. The movement or attraction towards the good is called desire, while resting in or possession of the good is joy or pleasure. Joy exceeds happiness. The biblical command to rejoice is not reducible to a command to be cheerful all the time. First, it is impossible that we should always be cheerful, but it is possible, even in difficult times, to rejoice on account of God’s love for us and, even more so, on account of God’s own goodness and beauty. However, in worship there is always the danger of mistaking frivolity, a lack of seriousness, and flippancy, a lack of respect, for rejoicing. This kind of fake cheerfulness is an indifference to the solemnity of the moment and an offense to realities of sorrow, pain, and suffering in our neighbor. This superficial nod to joy, however well intentioned, is related to irreverence.
Our modern society has mistakenly, and perhaps unwittingly, put the notions of joy and solemnity in opposition to one another. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that solemnity in our worship is ordered to arouse devotion and reverence in the recipients of the sacraments. Our opening prayer asked God to grant to us to always celebrate the joys of so great a salvation with solemn worship and glad rejoicing. Liturgical solemnity and glad rejoicing are not opposites. A solemn attitude, spiritually speaking, is formal and dignified and characterized by a deep sincerity. It is not the same as being somber or mirthless. When our solemnity becomes grim, dour, or humorless, we have lost the sense of what Christian solemnity is. It is perhaps true that as modern Christians we have lost touch with the true meaning of both solemnity and joy, and how they should be expressed in worship.
C.S. Lewis wrote that “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.” Which one of us would not be offended by a frivolous and flippant rendition of our National Anthem? Who among us would not be saddened to witness informality or irreverence in the burial ceremonies of military honors? There is a pleasure, a joy, which is only experienced when solemn ceremonies are carried out with dignity and seriousness. And what could be more worthy of joyful solemnity and majestic ritual than the making present of the Eternal Victim upon our altars, as we offer Him to our Heavenly Father for our benefit and the benefit of the whole world?
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. Such attraction fades quickly - it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation. ...
This action of God, which takes place through human speech, is the real "action" for which all creation is in expectation. The elements of the earth are transubstantiated, pulled, so to speak, from their creaturely anchorage, grasped at the deepest ground of their being, and changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord. The New Heaven and the New Earth are anticipated. The real "action" in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God himself. This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential.
The Cross is the approbation of our existence, not in words, but in an act so completely radical that it caused God to become flesh and pierced this flesh to the quick; that, to God, it was worth the death of his incarnate Son. One who is so loved that the other identifies his life with this love and no longer desires to live if he is deprived of it; one who is loved even unto death – such a one knows that he is truly loved. But if God so loves us, then we are loved in truth. Then love is truth, and truth is love. Then life is worth living. This is the evangelium. [The Gospel]. This is why, even as the message of the Cross, it is glad tidings for one who believes; the only glad tidings that destroy the ambiguity of all other joys and make them worthy to be joy. Christianity is, by its very nature, joy – the ability to be joyful.”
Being solemn does not absolve us from having joy, and the two are actually related to one another. That has consequences: not only for how we comport ourselves in the house of God or how we carry out the liturgical service, but it also should carry over into our relationships with one another. How will anyone see our joy if our greeting of one another is not characterized by the pleasure of being together for this solemn moment? And what if we do not greet one another at all? We are a family, and there is a pleasure in being together in celebration on the Lord’s day. Our solemnity is the work of many more people than you think, most of which you do not see. There is the training of our altar servers, the arranging of flowers, choir practice, the care of the altar linens, the setting up for Holy Mass, and many more such things. These are done out of love for God and for you. Yet, we all share responsibility for the logistics of our worship. Everyone loves to greet the priest after Holy Mass and shake his hand. Do you greet one another? Look around in the pews next to you. Are we truly a family, do we truly love one another, if we are just individuals sitting in our normal spaces – strangers to one another? We will not have joy in one another, if we do not have love for one another. And how can we love one another if we do not know each other? If we come and talk to no one, greet no one, just simply receive the sacrament, fulfill our obligation of Sunday worship and leave, have we not also fallen into the trap of a form of religious entertainment? Solemnity requires that we each do our part logistically and interiorly to enter into the sacred space of liturgy with devotion and reverence. Christian joy requires that we remember to rest in one another as Christian brothers and sisters rejoicing for, indeed, the Lord is near.