On the Third Week of Advent (Free for All)
Happy Gaudete Sunday, Friends. This week, I’m continuing my series of reflections on Advent, my miniest of “mini-retreats,” as I’ve been calling it. This week, however, I am doing one thing different. Because I know the coming days will be so hard for so many, I’m making this week’s reflection available for everyone. I don’t know if these words will help those of you who are struggling to rejoice right now, but I pray they do.
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Reading 1: Isaiah 61:1-2A, 10-11
Responsorial Psalm: Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54
Reading 2: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
This will be our first Christmas without my dad, and I wasn’t prepared for the grief. Which seems foolish. But I’m of an age where friends and acquaintances losing their parents is almost a weekly thing. It’s rarely a shock or a tragedy. It’s not like the deaths of my two friends earlier this year—young moms with young kids whose lives were taken by cancer and whose loss was untimely and cruel. With my dad and my friends’ parents, it’s just disease and age and time and what happens to everyone who makes it to their eighth, ninth, or tenth decade of life. There is nothing special about it. And life goes on. Or so I thought.
When Dad died early this fall, after many years of illness and pain, I initially took it as a matter of course. My first emotion was relief. I was just so glad he wasn’t suffering anymore. I knew the tears would come soon enough. I was expecting sorrow, a sadness simmering below the surface and bubbling up at unexpected times. And that I got.
But I wasn’t expecting the disorientation, the feeling of not simply having a rug pulled out from under me, but rather of having the whole earth pulled out from under me. I wasn’t expecting feeling (for lack of a better word) homeless. But that’s how my dad’s death, compounded by mother’s disappearance into the fog of Alzheimer’s, has left me feeling: groundless and homeless. Not spiritually, not physically, but emotionally, on a natural level. Which of course, now that I’m walking through it, makes perfect sense.
Our parents are our first foundation, our first home. We build our lives on what they give us, for good and for ill, and often to a greater extent than we realize. We tend to take what has always been there, as bedrock, for granted. Until it’s gone. Until they’re gone. And then the world shifts. Whether you’re eight or forty-eight, it upends you. Even if you have built your adult life on the Christ the Rock, even if you have a wonderful home and life of your ow, a parent’s death upends you. I know that now. I didn’t before.
But I also didn’t know what a balm this Advent would be to that grief. All is chaos here as we prepare to move. I’m on the go from 4 am until 10 pm, writing, packing, and toddler chasing. I’m anxious about appraisals, paperwork, and a half dozen other problems related to the move. I’m also struggling with leaving our friends, parish, and home here in Pittsburgh. But this year, the words of today’s readings from Scripture don’t rankle me. Hearing “rejoice” over and over again in the Mass doesn’t sound ironic or foolish or impossible, like it has when life has been particularly hard on Gaudete Sundays past. Instead, this year, it makes perfect sense.
Last week, on Instagram, my friend Laura Fanucci answered a question from one of her readers about how to not descend into bitterness when life isn’t how you expected it to be. Laura has been battling an aggressive form of breast cancer all year and has suffered plenty in other ways too, so she was the right person to answer that question. Everything she said in her answer was good and helpful, but one phrase in particular stuck with me. She talked about “bright siding” and said how important it is not to let people ‘bright side you” when you’re suffering. In other words, when your cross feels like it’s crushing you, it’s okay to just grieve the weight of the cross. You don’t have to always look for the silver lining.
I think, in Advents past, there were times where I felt like Gaudete Sunday was bright siding me. I would hear Saint Paul’s instructions to “Rejoice always,” I would see the rose vestments and rose candles, I would repeat the words of the Responsorial Psalm, “My soul rejoices in my God,” and I would feel like I was being told to ignore my pain. In seasons of loneliness, loss, and infertility, I didn’t see how I could just rejoice.
But mourning someone who no amount of praying can bring back and grieving a way of life—a way of being—that no amount of grace can restore, has started shifting my vision. The more I look beyond this life for a fix for my pain, the more I see how the Church is doing the very opposite of “bright siding.” She’s not telling us to rejoice despite the pain or to rejoice in the pain. She’s telling us to rejoice because of the pain. It’s the pain that makes the promises of the Babe in Bethlehem so powerful. It’s the pain that makes His coming so sweet.
This world is a vale of tears, where one grief just tumbles on top of another. The Church sees this. She knows it. But she also knows that if we’ve been doing what Advent has been calling us to do—remembering the One who saves and repenting of all the ways we’ve broken faith with Him—then we can rejoice. We can be glad. For the pain will end.
This is the assurance Christmas gives to us: that if we look to the Child in the Manger, if we look to the One who becomes the Man on the Cross, suffering will not have the last word. Wounds will be healed. Relationships will be restored. What’s lost will be returned.
Jesus’ coming in time meant the salvation was at hand. And His “coming” again every Christmas reminds us of this. All the hurt that weighs on us, that robs the breath from our bodies and energy from our bones—will be lifted by Him. Because of Him life doesn’t have to be grief upon grief for all eternity. It can be joy for all eternity. And this is cause for rejoicing.
But our cause for rejoicing doesn’t end there. For because of the Christ Child, our prayers have power. In the face of sickness and death, confusion and lies, fractured families and fractured friendships, hope remains. We can go to the One who takes all the sorrow of the world on His shoulders and ask for His mercy and grace. Not just for us, but for all those we love. When it feels like there’s nothing we can do for someone in pain, like they are beyond our help, like they are beyond anybody’s help, we can know they are not beyond Christ’s help. He is outside of time, and the mysteries of the human soul hidden from us are seen plainly by Him. He knows the movements of our hearts—of everyone’s heart—right to the very last, and He is working to the very last to bring those hearts to Himself.
We get to be a part of that work. We get to pray and suffer and sacrifice, partnering with Christ in the redemption of everyone we love, both those still here, and those now gone. No matter how a person died or how far away from Christ they seem, the power of our prayers and Christ’s gracious mercy can give us reason to at least hope for their salvation. We can hope always, despair never. This too is cause for rejoicing.
So rejoice. Rejoice, if you can, in the glimpses of joy that break through the veil: the glow of the lights, the laughter of children, the carols of hope, the beauty that explodes with delightful tackiness over everything in red and green, silver and gold. But if you can’t rejoice in those things, that’s okay. If the sadness of this moment is just too much, I understand. But rejoice still. Rejoice in knowing that the sadness will end. Rejoice in knowing joy will come. Ask God for the grace to look beyond the veil, to look farther and deeper than you’ve ever looked before. And rejoice in the birth of the One who will walk with you always, through this present darkness and into that distant light.
Questions for Reflection
When you hear the word “rejoice,” what is your first reaction or thought?
Does rejoicing in general come easily for you or not? Why is that?
Does rejoicing at Christmas in particular come easily for you or not? Why or why not?
Do you ever “bright side” yourself, not allowing yourself to feel the weight of sorrow or avoiding dealing with difficult problems? If so, where does that habit come from? Are you doing it right now in any way?
What, if anything, in your life seems hopeless right now? What problem tempts you to despair? How can you give that problem over to Christ this Christmas?
Thank you, Jesus, for the hope you give. Thank you Lord, for the promises you make. You are good and gracious and kind. Help me to remember that always. Grant me the grace, I pray, to see as you see, to know that these present sorrows are passing and that enduring joy is coming. Forgive me for all despairing thoughts and help to hope ever more in you, tasting now, in part, the joy I will someday know in full. Help me also to share that taste of joy with others, through prayer and service and friendship. I ask all this through the intercession of your mother, whose “yes” brought us the joy of you.