Can We Rejoice in a Pandemic?

The Third Sunday of Advent is also called “Gaudete Sunday” which in Latin means “rejoice.” It reminds us that this season of Advent is a time for rejoicing because the day of our salvation is near at hand. God has revealed himself to us by being born into this world to redeem us from the bondage of sin. But can we still rejoice in this season of sickness and death?

Today’s Gospel brings us back to the narrative on John the Baptist. To answer the many who were asking for his credentials and identity, John answered, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” He then solemnly proclaimed: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’” as Isaiah the prophet said.”

As the Gospel readings for this season instruct us, the season of Advent is not only a time for watchfulness but also for rejoicing. But how can we rejoice when millions are getting sick and have died because of the raging pandemic? When our usual movements are being restricted and most of our normal activities prohibited; when many cannot even see their loved ones for fear of getting sick or infecting others; when many have been reduced and are being reduced to utter poverty? Is John the Baptist’s message of rejoicing and God’s love an anachronism in these times? 

In his homily during the Eucharistic Concelebration with the new cardinals last November 29 2020, his Holiness Pope Francis emphasized the need to recognize God’s closeness and to say to him: “Come close to us once more!” God wants to draw close to us, but he will not impose himself; it is up to us to keep saying to him: “Come!” This is our Advent prayer: “Come!” Advent reminds us that Jesus came among us and will come again at the end of time. Yet we can ask what those two comings mean, if he does not also come into our lives today? So let us invite him. Let us make our own the traditional Advent prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20). The Book of Revelation ends with this prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus.” We can say that prayer at the beginning of each day and repeat it frequently, before our meetings, our studies and our work, before making decisions, in every more important or difficult moment in our lives: Come, Lord Jesus! It is a little prayer, yet one that comes from the heart. Let us say it in this Advent season. Let us repeat it: “Come, Lord Jesus!”

In order to find joy and happiness even when the world’s storms are buffeting our inner peace and creating so much fear and disturbance in us, the Holy Father encourages us to recognize the hand of God in everything that we do and in every situation we find ourselves in. It is thus important that we become more alert and ready to rouse ourselves from the slumber of mediocrity and the slumber of indifference. And the antidote the Holy Father gives us is the vigilance of prayer. 

He said: “When we pray, we light a candle in the darkness. Prayer rouses us from the tepidity of a purely horizontal existence and makes us lift our gaze to higher things; it makes us attuned to the Lord. Prayer allows God to be close to us; it frees us from our solitude and gives us hope. Prayer is vital for life: just as we cannot live without breathing, so we cannot be Christians without praying…We have lost something of our sense of adoration, of standing in silent adoration before the Lord. This is mediocrity, lukewarmness and indifference. Those who are indifferent see everything the same, as if it were night; they are unconcerned about those all around them. When everything revolves around us and our needs, and we are indifferent to the needs of others, night descends in our hearts. Our hearts grow dark.”

In this season of joy, we can only recognize Christ in the manger if, like John the Baptist, we wear the vest of charity, selflessness, trust and total dependence in God and most of all love for the suffering. 

In these times when so much is happening around us, good and bad, Evangelist John is calling us to try to recognize Christ in our midst and discern his divine will, to see everything from the perspective of our faith. As God is the God of history, he is also the God of forgiveness and providence, and most of all the God of love and joy. 

Yes, we can and should rejoice. Our Savior is coming!

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