Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gaudete Sunday: Can We Rejoice in Times of Tragedy?

The irony is unmistakable, even painful perhaps. After hearing of the school shooting in Connecticut, we now hear in Mass that we are to rejoice. Is this a case of the church calendar being in on a completely different planet from ours, blithely going its way without a care for what happens in “real life”? Or is it rather a reminder of what Christian joy really means?

Warning: this post may start to sound like it’s more about Easter than Advent. But could this be because the two are inseparably linked to each other? Without having been born, Jesus couldn’t have died and risen. Without having become human in the Incarnation, he couldn’t have paid the debt of our sins. Gaudete Sunday in Advent is paralleled by Laetare Sunday in Lent—the only two days of the year where the liturgical color is rose. (Gaudete and laetare both mean “Rejoice! Be joyful!” in Latin).

For me personally, today is also difficult. My uncle and godfather recently died, and today is the rosary for him, tomorrow the funeral. My aunt’s dedication to the rosary during this difficult time left me with a renewed appreciation of this beautiful prayer. I would like to interpret today’s message of rejoicing in terms of the glorious mysteries of the rosary, which are always prayed on Sunday.

The glorious mysteries can be seen as a meditation on our own mortality and immortality. They begin with a climax: the Resurrection. Christ conquered death. We hear this all the time. But this is the single most hope-giving truth of the Christian faith. Christ didn’t just passively wake back up again after having been dead for three days. He looked death in the face and said, “Give me your best shot.” He didn’t just defeat death. He accepted the worst that death could do to him, and proved it wasn’t really all that much. He’s been there, done that. And that’s just the beginning.

After his Resurrection, Christ spent some time on Earth with his disciples, and then he ascended into Heaven (the second glorious mystery). Here begins the long period of physical separation, in which we are still living today. Christ ascended so that he could send the Holy Spirit to be with us (the third mystery) in a much more intimate way than he could have done given the constraints of a physical body. These two mysteries show us that physical separation is not complete separation. Those we love still exist—we just can’t perceive them anymore with our five senses.

But even this is not the end of the story. We don’t have to “settle” for a “merely spiritual” union, true as this union may be. The fourth glorious mystery tells of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, an event long held as true by church Tradition. After her death/dormission, Mary was immediately taken into Heaven, body and soul. Christ is the “first fruits of the dead (1 Cor. 15:20),” but Mary’s Assumption makes clear that the resurrection of the body is for all of us. Yes, we too will one day be in Heaven, soul and new, glorified body, with Jesus and Mary and all those who have gone before us.

The final glorious mystery, the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven (hinted at in Revelation 12:1: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars”), prefigures the grand finale of salvation history. In the Gospel of John, one of Jesus’s last prayers before being arrested on the night of his Passion is this: “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24) When we get to Heaven, we, along with all our loved ones, will see Christ face to face and share in his glory, and his joy and ours will be complete.

This is why, as Christians, we can rejoice, even with horror in our guts and tears in our eyes. This darkness is not the end.

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