'Rejoice always; pray without ceasing....May the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely, and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ....' -- I Thes 5:16,23

Our journey of Advent can seem so brief. In just over a week, we will be celebrating the great feast of Christmas.

Our Scripture readings give us markers or signs to guide us through this season and help us prepare for the coming of Jesus. So far, we have had the spiritual guides of "watching and waiting" and of "preparing a way for the Lord."

Our signpost for this third week is a simple, yet potentially difficult message: "Rejoice, for the Lord is near!" We celebrate "Gaudete" (rejoicing) Sunday, echoing the words of the entrance antiphon for the Mass. We are asked to rejoice because the coming of our Lord is near.

The theme of rejoicing is marked in our readings, the prayers at Mass and the option of having rose-colored vestments and a pink Advent wreath candle (rose being a mix of the purple of Advent and the white of Christmas).

The word "joy" occurs many times in the Scriptures, yet it is not always an easy word to understand or live. It can be hard to be joyful if we are experiencing loss, hurt or a crisis. We think of the recent natural disasters and acts of violence and terrorism in the United States and elsewhere. Joy can seem fleeting, superficial or frustratingly elusive.

Meaning of joy
With Christmas fast approaching, perhaps we are not feeling the joy of the coming season! When, as Christians, we speak of joy (like other, everyday words such as "love," "peace" or "freedom"), we need to recall that the word has a very particular meaning.

In the first reading (Is 61:1-2,10-11), the prophet Isaiah offers a poem about the joy of what things will be like when the Messiah comes. The passage is the one Jesus quotes when He begins His public ministry (cf Luke 4:14-21). We rejoice because Jesus fulfills this prophecy.

Unusually, our psalm is not really a psalm this week: it is the "Magnificat" or song of Mary. We use this every time we pray evening prayer or vespers. Mary, too, sings of her joy for all that God has done for her and for those who welcome God's presence in their lives.

Notice that Mary focuses not on herself, but on God. When we "magnify the Lord" rather than ourselves, we experience a deep joy.

In our second reading (1 Thes 5:16-24), St. Paul concludes his first letter to the early Church community in Thessalonica (in Greece) with a dense package of advice on how to be joyful as Christians: Pray; give thanks; do not suppress the Spirit; listen; think and test things; do good and abstain from evil. These are all "joy-bringers," rather than joy-killers!

Claim it
These are both choices about how I might live my life and gifts from God. We might say that we do not so much attain joy, but claim joy: It is a gift we decide to choose.

The prologue of St. John's Gospel (Jn 1:6-8,19-28) is also something of a poem. It describes John's mission to be a witness to the light. John is often depicted as a rather severe and morose figure, but he must have experienced the immense joy and peace that can only be found when we follow and live God's particular calling and mission for us.

John is asked three questions about who he is and then about what he does; in other words, his mission and purpose in life. In answer, he does not proclaim or magnify himself, but Jesus.

In the end, true joy is actually not all about me; nor does it depend on my circumstances. It is about following our calling from God and being open to Christ growing in us.

As Julian of Norwich wrote centuries ago: "The greatest honor that you can give to God, greater than all your penances and sacrifices, is to live joyfully because of the knowledge of His love."