This Gaudete Sunday, rejoice despite the heartbreak all around us

This article appears in the Advent 2014 feature series. View the full series.

The most joyful room I was in this year was a church packed with mourners at the funeral of a man who died far too soon. That church was also saddest room I was in this year.

Joy and sadness don't always come together, but there was no mistaking them both that night. And they didn't water each other down: the funeral was 100 percent joyful and 100 percent sorrowful.

We had gathered to celebrate the life of Larry DiPaul, a trailblazing prophet in Catholic social justice ministry in Philadelphia and Camden, N.J. I will never forget the volume and intensity with which we sung that 1970s arrangement of the Our Father as we simultaneously gave thanks for a life so well lived and lamented Larry's departure from this world.

One word I wouldn't use to describe Larry's funeral is "happy." Joy and happiness seem different to me somehow. The great Henri Nouwen wrote about this difference and how joy can persist in even the saddest times. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, Nouwen writes that joy is something deeper. It is "the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing -- sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death -- can take that love away."

Reflecting on his own experience of the commingling of joy and sorrow, Nouwen continues: "I remember the most painful times of my life as times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope ... Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day."

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This coming Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is all about joy in the midst of darkness. As we wait for the coming of Christ, we light a cheerful rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath as a reminder that our waiting will not be in vain. The Sunday gets its name -- "gaudete," which means "rejoice" -- from the introit to the day's liturgy: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice."

These words come from St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians, which he wrote from prison. Paul was no naïve optimist, and he obviously knew real suffering. Despite the intense unhappiness of imprisonment, Paul was joyful anyway -- the word appears 17 times in various forms throughout the short letter.

"Gaudete" is the word's imperative form. We are commanded to rejoice. Against the backdrop of heartbreaking news out of cities like Ferguson, Mo., and New York this Advent, I don't really feel like rejoicing. I probably need that sort of urgency from Paul. Of course, there are sad headlines every Gaudete Sunday, and every other day. Our celebration this week (and at Christmas) is a countercultural declaration that even in sadness, we rejoice because our hope is in the one who is stronger than death.

[Mike Jordan Laskey is the director of Life & Justice Ministries for the diocese of Camden, N.J. He blogs for the Camden diocese at camdenlifejustice.wordpress.com.]

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