Rejoice! This is the message that was proclaimed this past Sunday as we shifted our focus from the prayer, fasting and almsgiving that characterize Lent to rejoice over being halfway through our journey to Jesus’ resurrection at Easter.
The name for Laetare Sunday comes from the opening words of the Scripture that are prayed or sung at the beginning of Mass and are known as the introit. Last Sunday’s introit begins, “Laetare Jerusalem” (“Rejoice Jerusalem”), quoting from Isaiah 66, which continues: “be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her. For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance.”
What a beautiful reminder that Christ has come to save us and that he will restore the world so that it is even more glorious than before the fall of Adam and Eve!
And yet, if we let our eyes and hearts stray from this eternal perspective, rejoicing can seem ridiculous, especially when we look at the world around us. The evil one always wants to take us away from the joy of the Gospel and lead us into discouragement and despair.
I want to remind you, though, that through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it is not only possible but necessary to rejoice in times of difficulty. I cannot think of a single saint who did not experience this test of the authenticity of their faith and joy.
St. Peter and the apostles exemplified this when they were brought before the chief priests because they preached in the Temple about Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.
Upon being questioned by the Jewish council, Peter replied: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:29-32).
After their appearance before the council, they were told not to speak in the name of Jesus and were beaten. What is astounding is that the apostles responded to this treatment by rejoicing that they were “counted worthy to suffer for the name” (Acts 5:40).
When was the last time that you were treated poorly because of your faith and your response was to rejoice instead of getting angry, defensive or discouraged?
Without a Christian belief in the resurrection, rejoicing over physical suffering or even verbal suffering can seem almost sadistic. But if you look more closely at the apostles’ reaction, you will see that their response is fueled by love for Jesus’ name. Jesus experienced the same kind of rejection and persecution.
In the Jewish tradition, a person’s name signifies their identity and mission in life. So, when the apostles rejoiced because they suffered for Jesus’ name—which means “God saves” in Hebrew—they were echoing the same message that Peter gave the council: God exalted Jesus to save Israel.
Besides the other apostles, Peter also pointed to the Holy Spirit as a witness. We should not fail to call upon the Holy Spirit when we suffer, asking him for his gifts.
How often do you ask the Holy Spirit for his seven gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord? All of these gifts play a part in helping us rejoice in the midst of difficulty. In particular, wisdom and fortitude can help us to see circumstances as God does and to persevere in loving him despite adversity.
The late Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan comes to mind as someone who was able to rejoice while he suffered through 13 years in prison for the faith.
On the day that he was arrested in 1975, Cardinal Van Thuan decided he would live his captivity not merely as “a time of resignation but a turning point in my life.
“I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I am going to die.
“No, I will not spend time waiting,” the Vietnamese cardinal resolved. “I will live the present moment and fill it with love.” His love for Christ ended up converting many of his guards and many later spoke about his abiding inner joy.
May we, too, resolve to live our faith in the public square with the same joy and courage so that we always give witness to Jesus Christ, no matter what the cost!