It’s probably rare that fans of 1970s folk rock and fans of medieval Latin carols form a Venn diagram that comprises a single overlapping circle, but when it comes to ‘people who know the word gaudete’ - well, here we are.

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
ex Maria virgine, gaudete!
Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
of the virgin Mary, rejoice!

Gaudete! – “Rejoice [ye]!” – is the title of a 16th century Christmas carol written in Latin, and the word recurs in the refrain (printed above, with translation). As a lifelong, low church Bible nerd, I obviously know the song from the 1973 Steeleye Span recording not the liturgical tradition. It was a Top 40 hit in the UK, and here it is in all its a cappella glory lyrics:

The third Sunday of Advent is ‘Gaudete Sunday’, and we’re turning our attention to ‘joy’ for our Advent reflections this week. (You can loop ‘Gaudete’ in the background while you’re reading, just to get you in the mood.) If you’ve followed the last two blog posts in the Advent 2020 series, you might be wondering how I’m going to talk about joy and rejoicing. On Advent Sunday I confessed to feeling hopeless, and for Advent 2 I was worried about not feeling at peace. So yes, I’m struggling to feel joy right now.

Honestly, I think probably a lot of us are, because reasons. Among those reasons, there are certainly times when I’ve felt like my low church, Evangelical tradition has been infused with a kind of forced cheer, where anybody not overflowing with enthusiasm and joy for the always-just-around-the-corner apocalypse is viewed as lacking faith. After all, aren’t we the people of The Truth? Aren’t we moving inexorably towards The Kingdom Of God and eternal bliss in the divine presence?

As we considered on Advent Sunday, there can be an unhealthy preoccupation with the future at the expense of a full awareness of the present. Well, perhaps we also need to consider how much an obsession with the future also obscures our view of the past. Take this Psalm, for example.

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like [those who dream].
Our mouths were full of laughter
and our tongues sang aloud for joy.
Then among the nations it was said,
‘The LORD has done great things for them.’
Great things indeed the LORD did for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, LORD,
as streams return in the Negeb.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
He who goes out weeping,
carrying his bag of seed,
will come back with songs of joy,
carrying home his sheaves.

Psalm 126, REB after NRSV

The language here is very familiar, which perhaps makes it easy to skim this psalm instead of digging into it. But it’s worth the digging as we consider the nature of ‘joy’ this week.

The second stanza is a petition urging God to restore the fortunes of the people of God. That’s a bit of a surprise, because the first stanza is full of praise for a time when God already restored God’s people! Is this a time after the Exile and the return to Judah, when the people have once again been brought low by imperial oppressors? Probably. In scripture, petitions and complaints frequently reference past events as an indicator of future ones. The psalmist’s joy comes from a confidence in God’s past faithfulness to the people of God in times of difficulty.

But Hebrew doesn’t have past/present/future tenses like English, and this is a poem that has none of the explicit indicators of chronology or sequence that we find in Hebrew narrative. So it’s quite possible to read the first stanza with a future sense, not a past one. In fact, the JPS Tanakh (1985) translation does exactly that:

When the LORD restores the fortunes of Zion
  —we see it as in a dream—
  our mouths shall be filled with laughter,
  our tongues, with songs of joy.
Then shall they say among the nations,
  “The LORD has done great things for them!”
  The LORD will do great things for us
  and we shall rejoice.

Psalm 126:1-3, NJPS

This reading transforms Psalm 126 entirely into a psalm of complaint or petition. It looks forward to a future deliverance and petitions God to hasten that time, and the line “The LORD has done great things for them” becomes a straightforward statement of praise or incredulity by “the nations”. Changing the reading changes the perspective: the joy that emerges from the psalmist’s faith in God’s character, which is particularly poignant coming from a place of desolation and weeping.

The reality of our present time makes it hard to find joy, so whether we’re looking back with longing, or looking forward in faith, this psalm has something to offer us. Maybe the ambiguity is even part of the psalmist’s point, a nuance literally lost in the translation. Whichever reading you choose, the psalmist’s expression of joy is restrained by an awareness of mourning in the present. It’s the perfect psalm for the Advent season.

Perfect, that is, unless you approach the text like a modern Evangelical, full of triumphalism and the certainty that every current event is a significant milestone on the Bible’s clear roadmap from ancient Israel to the exaltation of the saints of God in their own church. Christian nationalism is not joy, though - it’s hubris. It strips out the psalmist’s reality of “the now and the not yet”, the crucial recognition that faith and hope is anchored in a present reality that falls short of that which is to come.

And this is where my own church tradition fails to appreciate how difficult it can be to find joy. It’s a feckless hope that fails to acknowledge and address the present time, and it can only lead to hysteria in place of the kind of joy modelled by the psalmist. Asking someone experiencing hardship to ‘just choose joy’ or ‘just think of the future’ is like asking a person suffering depression to ‘just cheer up’.

We see a much more balanced approach throughout the prophets and psalms. Living for a better future without also living with our past and fully in our present is delusional, not faithful. If we want to model a biblical kind of joy, then we need look no further than Mary and the Magnificat.

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:46-55

Mary’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus, the son of God whom she is carrying in her womb, blurs the lines between past, present, and future just like the psalmist of Psalm 126. The lowly servant rejoices in God’s coming deliverance, but Mary speaks of the impending advent of Messiah as though the act of deliverance has already been accomplished. What does that mean for us, the church of the gospel awaiting the Messiah’s second advent?

In the Magnificat, Mary proclaimed that the deliverance of God would scatter the proud and bring down the powerful. If the church preaches a message driven by self-satisfaction, gloating and strutting as it looks down haughtily on the unwashed masses who are ignorant of that great Truth that it hoards, then the church is on the wrong side of the prophet Mary’s proclamation. That church is magnifying itself, not the Lord that it falsely claims to represent.

By contrast, we can see Mary’s words reflected in the work that Jesus does throughout his ministry as recorded in Luke’s gospel. Jesus walks beside those who are being crushed by the injustice and suffering in the world. He magnifies the Lord by lifting up his fellow humans. He promises joy, but he brings that promise to bear in the present.

Peter said, ‘What about us? We left all we had to follow you.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you: there is no one who has given up home, or wife, brothers, parents, or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not be repaid many times over in this age, and in the age to come have eternal life.’

Luke 18:28-30

Maybe it’s time we reclaim these words of Jesus from the wolf-ish preachers of the ‘prosperity gospel’. Our actions now matter, and if we acknowledge that one cannot simply “choose joy” then maybe we should demand it instead. Our world, and the history of our societies, are full of horror, pain, and the disappointment of repeating cycles of misery. If the church - the concrete expression of the way of Jesus in the world today - cannot be a home, a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child to anyone seeking the Good News of God, then that church is broken.

If we are to preach the gospel, then the news of the second advent of our Lord has to actually be good news right now! So what do we really have to show from Jesus' first advent? How are we transformed by what has already come? Have we heeded our prophets and turned the power structures of the world on their head within the church? When we cry, "Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ is born of the virgin Mary!" will it be a rallying cry that brings joy and peace on earth to all people, or will it seem like nothing more than an empty boast delivered with a smug grin?

We may not be able to simply choose joy, like flipping on a happiness switch in our brains. But, just like Jesus did centuries ago, the church together can work to show the world what the joy of God's redemption might one day look like.