By Father Scott Bailey
Pastor at Risen Christ Parish in Denver
We call the Third Sunday of Advent “Gaudete Sunday.” That unfamiliar word — Gaudete — is a Latin command: “Rejoice!”
I find it interesting that the Church never cancels Gaudete Sunday. No matter how bad things might be in the world, in our country, in the Church, or in our own individual lives, the Church never cancels this day of rejoicing. We are each still called (or rather, commanded) to rejoice! But how are we supposed to stir that up? If you’re like me, it’s not so easy to just put on a smile and suddenly feel joyful. What does it mean to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4)?
Perhaps we should turn to the life of a great man (and Servant of God) of the last century: Dr. Takashi Nagai.
Dr. Nagai grew up in a Sinto family in Nagasaki, Japan. By the time he started studying medicine and science in college, he considered himself an atheist who did not believe in the soul. For him, the only reality was what could be seen and measured. But his worldview was rocked during his junior year of college when his mother had a stroke and was dying. He said, “I rushed to her bedside … My mother in that last penetrating gaze knocked down the ideological framework I had constructed … I who was so sure that there was no such thing as a spirit was now told otherwise; and I could not but believe! My mother’s eyes told me that the human spirit lives on after death.”
The following years were a roller-coaster for Dr. Nagai. He lost hearing in one ear; he befriended a Catholic family and started exploring the Catholic faith; he became Catholic, got married and started a family; he was called to serve injured soldiers in war; during the war, his father and daughter died; and on top of everything, he developed Leukemia. ⊲
And then in 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
About 40,000 people died immediately, and another 40,000 would die slowly from radiation. Dr. Nagai was in the hospital radiology lab when it happened. Climbing out of the rubble, he and other medical professionals began to rescue patients and started a mobile medical unit. After two days, he was able to go home in search of his wife. The ground was stripped of everything: no more houses, trees, or grass. He found the charred remains of his wife; she had been holding a metal rosary when she passed. His children had been out of town with family at the time of the explosion and were safe.
“Unless you have suffered and wept, you really don’t understand what compassion is, nor can you give comfort to someone who is suffering … Unless you’ve looked into the eyes of menacing death and felt its hot breath, you can’t help another rise from the dead and taste anew the joy of being alive.”
He could have been angry and bitter. He could have hated humanity for the evils of war, or he could have hated God for allowing such destruction. Instead, Dr. Nagai spent the remaining six years of his life speaking and writing. He wanted people to choose love again. He wanted people to find peace and hope and beauty amid difficulty. He tried to help people have “the eyes to see” God’s goodness amid difficulty, and even to find joy.
Dr. Nagai chose charity. Charity is that gift from God which allows us to love God and grow in intimacy with him. Genuine charity overflows into love of neighbor. It is given to us in baptism and renewed in us each time we receive Christ in the Holy Eucharist. But we still have to choose it. Christian love is not a feeling; it’s a decision.
Choosing charity draws us closer to God and transforms us. Charity makes us more like him. Think about that for a second! If we let him, God will make us more like himself! And he is pure love, and everything that comes with that: joy, peace and mercy!
We can’t make ourselves feel joy. We can’t make ourselves feel peace. But we can choose to love God and neighbor. When we choose charity, we are moved to joy, peace and mercy. I like that image of being moved because it makes it clear that we don’t create our own joy, peace or mercy. The Lord moves us so that those things begin to identify us. Our job is to choose the charity that God is offering to us. And from that, we will see ourselves moved to deeper joy, profound peace and works of mercy.
The Church will never cancel Gaudete Sunday, no matter how much brokenness there is in the world around us. In fact, the sufferings of this life might actually help us to love more, and even find more joy. Dr. Takashi Nagai once said: “Unless you have suffered and wept, you really don’t understand what compassion is, nor can you give comfort to someone who is suffering … Unless you’ve looked into the eyes of menacing death and felt its hot breath, you can’t help another rise from the dead and taste anew the joy of being alive.”
This Advent, we strive to answer the Lord’s invitation to charity. Walking in friendship with the Lord through the darkness, we will be moved to share with others “the joy of being alive.”
To coincide with the archdiocesan Advent preaching series, this article is part of a series about The Eucharist as the Sacrament of Charity.