There is a different feel to today's liturgy. We see it in the rose-colored vestments and the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath. We hear it in the upbeat music and joy-filled readings. Over the past two weeks, the mood has been sober and penitential as we have reflected on the end of the world and our need for repentance in preparation for the birth of Jesus. Now, as that happy day of Christmas draws near, a sense of joy pervades our worship. Christ our Savior is near! The Church today calls us to rejoice and give thanks!
But very often that call to be joyful can fall on deaf ears. For many, these weeks leading up to Christmas are among the most tiring and stressful of the year. There is shopping to do, parties to attend, presents to wrap and dinners to cook. Sadly, many people feel relieved when the holidays end, and life can return to normal.
For others, the Christmas season can be the loneliest time of the year. The shorter days and cold weather leave many people depressed. Over this difficult year, many have lost their jobs or their homes and are not able to provide for their families. And for those who are alone or who have recently lost a loved one, the festivities of the season only deepen their sense of bereavement and grief.
Christmas is not always a joyful time for everyone.
The great Catholic preacher, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, once described his loneliest Christmas. He was a young theology student studying in Belgium. Unable to fly home for the holidays, he had to spend Christmas day alone, and it left him feeling empty inside. At first, he was tempted to spend the week of vacation alone pitying himself. Then, the thought came to him to ask a local pastor whether there was a poor family in town he could help. He was given the address of a family with several children. After making their acquaintance, he visited them on Christmas day with food for the table and presents for the children. Rather than feel sorry for himself and let his circumstances dictate how he would spend the holiday, he decided to reach out to someone even needier than himself and so experience the true joy of Christmas. What would have otherwise been his saddest Christmas was now transformed into one of his happiest through the joy of giving.
Archbishop Sheen's experience holds a very important lesson for us. Life isn't always fair. We experience the loss of loved ones. Our families are not always as supportive and attentive as we would like them to be. Our jobs don't always leave us feeling fulfilled. No matter what the circumstances of our life are, we can always find fault. But, when we focus on the negative, we become bitter. We start to close in on ourselves and lose our appreciation for what is good in the world. We end up imprisoning ourselves in depression and loneliness.
Saint Paul gives us the remedy for such bitterness in today's second reading. He tells us that we are to "rejoice always" and to give thanks "in all circumstances." Gratitude is not only appropriate for the times when we are glad or when things are going our way. Rather, gratitude is most necessary when we feel overwhelmed and joyless. By giving thanks, we are empowered to look beyond ourselves and our situation. By rejoicing even in the midst of difficulty, we take the focus off what is lacking in our lives and put it on the abundance of good things we enjoy. It might be as simple as being thankful for a warm shower or that our car starts. It might be as basic as being thankful that we are still breathing and able to roll out of bed in the morning. No matter how poor,alone or sick we may be, there is always a reason to rejoice.
Today's Responsorial Psalm is taken from the gospel of Saint Luke. It is the beautiful song of Mary called the Magnificat. "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Mary had just learned from the angel Gabriel that God had chosen her to be the mother of Jesus, the Messiah. Though not yet married, she was to become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was the most important responsibility given to any person since the creation of the world. Mary found herself in a difficult situation, but rather than be overcome with fear, she overflowed with praise at the favor God had shown her. By saying "yes" to God and putting his will at the center of her life, Mary came to know the joy that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. When we say "no" to ourselves and "yes" to God, we experience that same joy and overflow with that same gratitude for a God who has loved us enough to send Jesus to save us.
Gratitude is at the heart of Christian spirituality. When we are grateful, we recognize that all we have and all we are is a gift from a loving Father. By being joyful in all circumstances we demonstrate that our world doesn't revolve around our own comfort and well-being but around Jesus and his plan for our lives.
The word "Eucharist" is taken from the Greek word meaning "to give thanks". Every Mass is a thanksgiving to the God who has created and saved us. Every Sunday we become a joy-filled community. No matter what our circumstances may be - whether we are poor, tired, sad, or bitter - we gather around this table to give thanks. God has richly provided for us. And so, today is a day to set aside the holiday plans and preparations and to focus on what is really important and what is really worth celebrating - Jesus, who comes to us as a child and who wants nothing else than that we love him back.