Psalm 126 (NRSV)
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
We've arrived at the third Sunday of Advent, when the purple (or blue!) candles on the Advent wreath give way to rose. It's "Gaudete Sunday," when we're commanded to "Rejoice!"
Our festive season has begun, complete with concerts, family get-togethers, and office parties. To help us rejoice, stores have been playing Christmas carols since the Halloween decorations came down. Some congregations have even (gasp!) skipped over the last days of Advent and scheduled their Christmas pageant for this coming Sunday. It seems that we're in full-bore rejoicing mode as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Two year ago, though, I found myself doing anything but rejoicing, as I led worship in a congregation that was grieving the death of one of their members who, only days before, had been killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Amid such tragedy, joy felt a long way off, but the church came together to hear ancient words of assurance and sing hymns of expectant joy. We were reminded that the rejoicing of the third Sunday of Advent comes to us in the midst of sorrow. Gaudete is a command to rejoice, not just a statement of what we're already doing.
In this week's scripture lessons, Isaiah prophesies to a people in exile, telling them that God has anointed him to "provide for those who mourn in Zion -- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint sprit." Similarly, the psalmist pleads, "Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy."
We live in a world where exile, violence, and death are realities, where loss, disappointment, and failure are part of our everyday existence. Even so, we can know joy in the midst of brokenness as we open ourselves to God's transforming presence in our lives and in the world around us. Joy is not marred by sorrow, but joy breaks into our sorrow, even as the light breaks into our darkness and is not overcome. Gaudete!
Be with us, Holy One, and help us to find joy, even in the midst of sorrow. Strengthen our spirits so that we, too, may proclaim the day of your favor and join ourselves to your transforming love.
Director of Spiritual Care at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers, NY. He also serves as pastor of the King Street United Church of Christ in Danbury, CT.