I recently saw a video on YouTube that made me smile. It involved the world’s largest pipe organ and a flash mob of over 650 people singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
Let me explain. The world’s largest pipe organ is located inside of a Macy’s department store in downtown Philadelphia. I bet most of you didn’t know that. It’s called the Wanamaker organ, and it has 28,750 pipes. That’s four times as many pipes as our own Miller-Scott organ! The Wanamaker organ was built in 1904 for the St. Louis World’s Fair, and it eventually ended up in Philadelphia in what is a Macy’s store today.
A few years ago, the Philadelphia Opera organized a flash mob event in which over 650 local singers showed up incognito at Macy’s. They were all dressed normally, and they mingled with the real shoppers. At the appointed time, the Wanamaker organ started to play the opening chords of the Hallelujah Chorus, and the singers burst out into song.
When I saw the YouTube video, I was incredibly touched by the surprise and joy on the real shoppers’ faces. They were stunned by the beauty of the Hallelujah Chorus coming out of literally nowhere. It was a beautiful thing to watch such rejoicing in the midst of an otherwise ordinary day.
Today is the Third Sunday in Advent, which is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from the first word of the opening introit in the Latin rite mass: Gaudete in Domino semper. Rejoice in the Lord always.
Today, we rejoice because we’ve passed the halfway point of Advent. We also rejoice because we know that Jesus will be here, both in terms of his First Coming – Christmas – as well as his Second Coming at the end of time.
You could say that the Third Sunday in Advent is a bit like the joy of a Hallelujah Chorus flash mob breaking through a relatively somber season of watching and waiting. This joy is reflected, of course, in our liturgy. Instead of the usual penitential violet, today’s liturgical color is rose, which you can see in the vestments and altar frontal. And today is the day when we lit the rose candle in the Advent wreath.
The irony, though, is that tonight’s evensong readings don’t seem very joyful at all. Speaking of the Messiah, the readings are less like the exuberant joy of the Hallelujah Chorus, and more like the shaking in the bass soloist’s “Thus Saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts” – or the refiner’s fire in the traditional alto’s version of “But Who May Abide.”
Our first reading tonight is from the Book of Isaiah. It describes the day of the Lord’s coming. On that day, Isaiah says, we will be seized by pangs and agony, and we will look aghast at each other with our faces aflame. The Lord will come with wrath and fierce anger, and he will punish the earth by shaking it and making it a place of desolation.
The second reading is from the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians. Here, St. Paul warns the church in Thessalonica not to be deceived by false teachers. Contrary to what the false teachers are saying, the Day of the Lord has not yet arrived. When that day comes, there will be a terrifying rebellion, and Satan – or the “lawless one” – will be revealed. In other words, St. Paul is telling the Thessalonians that the Day of the Lord hasn’t arrived yet because things aren’t quite bad enough.
The message of tonight’s readings – which focus on the Day of the Lord and the Second Coming – is pretty frightening. What are we to make of these eschatological readings when we hear them on a day when we’re supposed to be rejoicing?
I should note that, even though today is Gaudete Sunday, some of you might be having a hard time feeling joy right now. For a lot of people, the Advent season – and the weeks leading up to Christmas – is a difficult time of year. It’s hard enough if you are dealing with grief, loss, stress, or loneliness. It’s even harder when everyone is telling you to be full of holiday cheer, and you’re not.
So what is God saying to us through these readings?
The answer, I think, lies in the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness and joy are actually two different things. Even if you are not feeling happy, you can still experience joy.
The late spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote about this difference. Happiness, Nouwen said, is caused by external things – things like money, pleasure, or power. Happiness is a feeling, and it comes and goes depending upon what’s happening to you on the outside.
Joy, on the other hand, is an internal state of knowledge. Joy does not depend upon outside factors. Rather, joy arises from the security of knowing that God loves us beyond measure and that nothing can ever separate us from that love. As such, joy is something that we can always invoke, even during the most difficult of times.
Joy, according to Nouwen, is like coming across a small flower in the midst of a barren desert. Joy is the knowledge that, in a world shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world. Joy is like the rose color of Gaudete Sunday popping up in a sea of Advent violet. Joy is like the beauty of Handel’s Messiah unexpectedly breaking into a mundane and dreary world.
Let me be clear. When I say that we can always invoke joy, I’m not talking about fooling ourselves or faking happiness when we’re not. Rather, I’m talking about being confident in the knowledge that God is always with us – even if the earth is shaking all around us, even if we are being engulfed by a refiner’s fire, and even if we are being seized by pangs and agony.
As St. Paul writes so beautifully in the eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans, nothing – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor anything else in all of creation – can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that is something to rejoice about on this Gaudete Sunday.
Gaudete in Domino semper. Rejoice in the Lord always. Rejoice. Hallelujah!