Gaudete waiting

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Philippians 4:4-6 is the Biblical passage often used as a call to worship for the third Sunday of Advent. The first word of the passage in Latin is Gaudete. This day is known as Gaudete Sunday and has been long established in Christian tradition as a feast day in the midst of the more somber preparation for Christmas.

Advent is a season that has undergone many changes over the years. The seasons of Advent and Christmas were added to the Christian Calendar in part because of the rush of people who wanted to convert to Christianity after the Roman Emperor Constantine made its observance legal. The six weeks of Lent and Easter, the traditional times of preparation for and admittance into the Christian Church became crowded with converts and the decision was made to add a second opportunity each year for membership in the church.

Advent was originally a six week period of prayer and fasting - the same length as Easter. Like Lent, the season’s demands on believers were rigorous, and like Lent, one Sunday was designated as a break from the fasting and rigors or spiritual discipline. In Lent Laetare Sunday provides that break. In Advent, Gaudete Sunday offered a day of rejoicing in the midst of the somberness of the season. The day was to be for believers a day of joy and gladness in the promise of redemption - a foretaste of joy that is promised to all who believe. In the ninth century, the duration of Advent was reduced to four weeks, but most of the penitential nature of the season was preserved.

All of that is mostly ancient history these days. Many Christians don’t know the history that has led up to the season. The rose color of Gaudete is not observed in many churches, where all four candles of the Advent wreath are purple. In more liturgical churches, the rose candle remains, but I suspect that many of the members of our church do not know, off the top of their heads, to which week it belongs.

Still, today is a day for rejoicing. In our church our children and youth will be leading worship, which always is a delightful time and introduces a bit of levity into the season. There will be plenty of laughter in our church this morning when we gather for worship. And, after worship, there will be special treats for children and other signs of a joyful day. Most of the children have one more week of school before the Christmas holiday and the excitement has been building for weeks.

But there are many for whom this is not a season of joy. Yesterday I met with the Survivors of Suicide Support Group that meets in our church and once again heard the stories of those who have experienced deep loss and for whom the holidays are a time of sadness and remembrance. The meeting reminded me of the four families who have lost a loved one to suicide in our county this Advent. It recalled for me the Advent anniversary of the death of a young man with great promise for the Christian ministry who died by suicide four years ago. There are many among us who approach this season of the year with fear and trembling.

The reasons for shortening Advent from six to four weeks are obscured in the historical record. It isn’t completely clear. One theory is that during the ninth century most Christians lived in the northern hemisphere and unlike Lent with the lengthening days, increased sunlight and the promise of coming summer, Advent is a season of shortening days and more darkness. During the long nights, excessive contemplation of sinfulness and penance can become overwhelming. Whether or not this is the actual reason for the change in the season, it does appear that people have been aware of the effect of seasons on our emotional lives for many centuries. We are affected by weather and daylight and all kinds of environmental factors. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has a significant impact on the lives of about 3 percent of all people, but those who suffer from mental illness are disproportionately affected. As many as 20 percent of people diagnosed with major depressive disorder also suffer from SAD. About 25 percent of those who suffer from bipolar disease also feel the effects of SAD. The season can be a time of sadness and dysfunction.

A day of joy in the midst of a season of sadness and depression is a treasure that should not be forgotten. Despite the rush away from formal liturgies and the teachings of the ancient institutional church, there is wisdom in the years and layers of tradition that are a part of our heritage. Simply forgetting our history and traditions is a perilous venture.

Many contemporary congregations have given in to the rush to Christmas that is a part of popular culture. They stage their special productions and programs during Advent and seem to be celebrating Christmas for the month of December and as soon as Christmas day arrives they are on to other things.

The rise from depression and sadness rarely comes suddenly. One day is insufficient. In the church, we still have a significant span from Gaudete Sunday to Epiphany. Whether or not Christmas landing on December 25 is due to a miscalculation of the date of the winter solstice, in the flow of our part of the world, the solstice arrives on Friday. The longest night of the year slowly gives way to lengthening days. The 12 days of Christmas run from December 25 to January 6. Gaudete Sunday is a foretaste of the celebration of the return of light which is three weeks in the future. This long period of time is closer to the actual experience of those who are rising from deep depression. It takes time.

So today we celebrate the presence of joy even with those who are not feeling joy. We repeat the command to rejoice because it takes time. And there is waiting that is yet ahead for those who suffer. We stand with them and we wait.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!