On Friday, December 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza swathed himself in Kevlar, armed himself to the teeth, and put several bullets in his mother’s head. He then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, shot the door open, and fired his way through the school. The death toll of twenty-eight, including Lanza’s suicide, made it the second-worst school shooting in an America now infamous for the clockwork regularity of such horrors.
Two days later, December 16, was the Third Sunday of Advent, or Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin command to rejoice, as in the opening words of the second reading (Philippians 4:4-7) where Paul proclaims: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” And Monday, December 17, began the cycle of O Antiphons, more familiar in their lump-sum form as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The refrain: “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
The liturgical cycle suddenly seemed a terrible cosmic joke, a plastic smile after the end of the world. This Christmas, we need to talk about alternative meanings for the word “rejoice,” meanings that transcend having something to be happy about.
Whatever rejoicing is, it can neither shortcut the process of grief nor ignore the hell in which mourners live. Rejoicing will have to account for those who stare blankly at presents they bought for children no longer here to receive them. Rejoicing does have something to do with faith, “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), but only a glib faith can bypass the obliteration of so many living hopes who had names and faces.
I believe the biblical writers understood that. The people whom Paul told to rejoice lived under an iron Roman thumb that did not stop jabbing down on them. Isaiah, who wrote what we know as the first Christmas midnight reading (“the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” 9:1), did so while Judah faced invasion and destruction. And the composers of psalms blended their praise with litanies of pain: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps 22:2). The commentary in my Bible states flatly: “There are more psalms of lament than of any other type.”
These folks often had no cause to celebrate, and much cause to mourn, which they did. But at the same time they made a statement, and slowly cleared a path ahead, by rejoicing. Rejoicing was, among other things, a calculated decision to deny legitimacy to encroaching evil. It was the choice to rebel, to revolt.
The “principalities and powers” did not suddenly tumble. The wounds inflicted by those powers only healed at their own slow pace, and cheerful platitudes were as offensive then as now. But by rejoicing, by stubbornly affirming that there is an alternative way of being, God’s people both yesterday and today have made space for love to enter and survive. Darkness remains real and even constant, but “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
So, even now: rejoice, rejoice, O Israel. And come, O come, Emmanuel.