In the Latin Missal, Sunday’s Mass begins with the words: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”), taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Hence, the rose vestments (in place of penitential purple) and the liturgy’s generally cheery tone. Sunday’s 2nd reading (1Thessalonians 5:16-24) also commands us: Rejoice always … In all circumstances give thanks.
Christmas is, of course, a time to rejoice - even if 2011 has hardly been a very joyful year for many people. St. Paul, however, wasn’t sending the Thessalonians a feel-good Christmas card. His letter – thought to be perhaps the earliest New Testament letter - was written to encourage them and strengthen their faith, despite difficult circumstances. The command to rejoice was not some superficial holiday greeting or sentimental slogan. It was for Paul the consequence of faith. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. What behavior but rejoicing and thanksgiving should characterize the lives of believers? What other possible response would proclaim Christ and his Church in a conflicted, anxiety-ridden world, which, without Christ, would present precious little reason for either rejoicing or thanksgiving?
Joy, of course, is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22). So the rejoicing to which Paul refers is not the transient happiness that depends on mere feelings and comes and goes according to shifting circumstances. It is, rather, a consequence of the experience of God’s presence and action regardless of circumstances – in good times and bad, sickness and health, war and peace, prosperity and recession.
Hence, St. Paul’s injunction to test everything, for he well knew that not every happy feeling comes from the Holy Spirit, but only what actually leads us to recognize Christ and to act upon that recognition.
It was for a similar reason – to test whether or not John the Baptist was the real thing – that priests and Levites and Pharisees were sent to John from Jerusalem (John 1:19). John responded by clarifying the scope of his activity, situating it in relation to Christ. Then, he challenged his hearers – and, through them, us today – to recognize Christ in our world, in the here and now, and to act upon that recognition by situating our lives in relation to him.
Especially in difficult times, but at all times, the rejoicing and thanksgiving that counter the sadness that corrodes our desire for God, do not just happen automatically. They happen when I recognize what a difference it makes to me that Christ has come into the world, and then act on that recognition through my participation in the community of his Church. That is why we celebrate Christmas when the nights are long and the sky is dark, when it is a real challenge to recognize the light, while we hang lights on evergreen trees to testify to the light (John 1:7) against the darkness. It takes more than a Christmas Tree to make Christmas, however. Rather it requires us to become Christmas Trees ourselves, to testify to the light with rejoicing and thanksgiving – so that the whole world will recognize the light of Christ present and active in his Church, and so see his face, and hear his word, and be embraced by his love