On Rejoicing with Ss Stephen and Paul

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday of Advent, 2020.

This Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudate Sunday.” Gaudate is Latin and it translates simply as “rejoice!” in the sense of a command or exhortation, or, more accurately, spiritual direction. This Sunday, the third of Advent, takes on that name because “gaudate” is the first word in the Introit for the Third Sunday of Advent. “Rejoice” shows up twice even in the first half of the first sentence in the Introit. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.” In this Advent season when the ever-present possibility of Jesus coming to us at any moment in our lives—amid any breath, amid any thought, amid any turn of circumstances—when the nature of Jesus is emphasized that He is the Coming One—the particular dimension of the “coming” nature of Jesus is emphasized to us by the strong invitation to rejoice. As the Introit says: Rejoice, for the Lord is at hand. Our Lord is ever at hand; He is always standing among us, to borrow the phrase from S. John the Baptizer: always in our heart. How could we but rejoice in this knowledge?

As is almost always the case, the Introit comes from Scripture; in this case, comes from S. Paul and the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Church in Philippi. The spiritual direction to rejoice Paul also provides in his first Epistle to the Church in Thessalonica, which we hear today in the Liturgy. To them and to us, Paul says it clearly again: “Rejoice always.” And he adds, “pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Christians often wonder, and I might add wonder rightly, what it means to follow the will of God. To ask that question is actually to ask the two types of questions, both of which are really the only kinds of questions necessary to ask to grow in the Holy Spirit and love of Jesus. To ask what it means to follow the will of God first asks “What does it mean when we say in the Our Father prayer ‘Thy will be done’?” Jesus teaches those words to us; the first question asks, “What do these words mean?” But also there is the second question, which is, “given that meaning, what shall we do?” These two questions (“What does it mean?” and “What shall we do?”) are the two questions asked by the people to S. Peter and the other apostles on Pentecost. The Church ever grows out of asking those two questions, and obeying how God answers them in our hearts.

Paul provides the basic starting point for the meaning of following God’s will: to rejoice always, to pray constantly (or, in older translation, to “pray unceasingly”), and to give thanks in all circumstances. Always rejoice; unceasingly pray, everywhere and in all places give thanks—being in the school of the Lord (which is what it means to be a Christian disciple) begins here. It is God’s will that His disciples always rejoice, unceasingly pray, and everywhere and in all places give thanks. To be a Christian is to express our love for God in these activities or dispositions of rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks.

This is what Paul saw in S. Stephen. This is what worked on Paul’s heart—a heart that started out hardened like the heart of Pharoah against Moses and Aaron, but was cut open by the witness of Stephen, both in his life of preaching and serving the poor as a holy Deacon, as well as in his testimony before the council, an episode that concentrated all the power God was working through him into a confession of faith that so unsettled Paul—explosively unsettled he who was consenting to the brutal stoning and death of Stephen—that when it finally hit him, Paul was knocked to the ground and the process of Christian transformation which was seeded by Stephen’s witness (the real meaning of “martyrdom”) was made evident on the road to Damacus, and then in his baptism when he received his sight, and then in the three years alone in the desert understanding what it truly means for Jesus to be the Coming One, and what Paul should do as a result.

Brothers and sisters, being a humble people means rejoicing always, praying unceasingly, and giving thanks everywhere and in all places. This is our testimony; and as we give it, we do so through the intercession of Paul, through the intercession of Stephen, through the intercession of Teresa of Calcutta and all the holy Apostles, Martyrs, and Saints. Giving our testimony is how we follow God’s will, for to do such in our lives demands humility before the Father Almighty, and Christ always shows Himself as the Coming One to those who are humble.