This coming Sunday, we will light the rose-hued candle on the Advent wreath as we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, Latin for “Let us rejoice!”

Joy is always the theme of the Third Sunday of Advent because we have now passed the halfway mark and are closer to Christmas than we are to the beginning of Advent.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul bids the Christian community to rejoice because the Lord is so near to them and loves them so much.

The astonishing aspect of this exhortation is that Paul writes these words from prison. His life is filled with suffering, anguish, rejection and uncertainty. Yet, in the midst of it all, he is filled with a remarkable joy, because his heart is united profoundly with Jesus Christ.

Just scratch the surface of life and you will discover an abundance of sadness and anger all around. There are so many problems, challenges, difficulties and suffering everywhere.

Many people seem to have lost hope in the future, the government, the church and perhaps themselves. Others struggle with depression, anxiety and the effects of dark winter days. Life can feel awfully heavy at times.

Yet, in the midst of the gloom, the Lord calls us to a radical and profound joy, that sense of God’s gentle nearness and peaceful love that grasped St. Paul in his prison cell.

Sometimes, we may confuse joy with pleasure. Eating Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal, going on a fabulous vacation, buying a new car or redecorating the house can give us great pleasure, but the feelings generated by such experiences do not last. Our hungry hearts will soon seek another pleasurable moment to fill the void within. Pleasure is not joy.

So, maybe we are really looking for happiness. Being in the right career, finding the groove in our marriage or a deep friendship, watching our children flourish into beautiful young adults can make us remarkably happy, which is much more substantive than mere pleasure.

Yet, such happiness can vanish in an instant – the betrayal of a loved one, the sudden loss of employment, disappointment in love, a distressing medical report can bring our emotional world crashing down around us. Happiness is not the same as joy.

Joy is that deep sense of consolation, purpose, fulfillment and hope that comes to us when we experience the remarkable love of God. We may find ourselves in the darkest of nights, life may look crazy and impossible, everything we looked to for security may have vanished, but we know that the Lord loves, sustains and saves us.

As the saying goes, I do not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future. Perhaps only one who has been held in the fiery crucible of torment and suffering can know joy, because when our face is pressed against the wall and there is no way out, we either choose to believe or despair, to hope or to give up. Authentic joy is not a fake smile pasted over the darkness, but the fruit of much spiritual wrestling with God.

When I think of the greatest Christian heroes – Mother Teresa, Pope John XXIII, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, I picture them with a beatific smile. They had all walked in the dark valley, as we all do, but all had come to know and feel the “Dawn from on High” – Jesus Christ – loving, leading, forgiving and guiding them.

Interned at Auschwitz, St. Maximilian Kolbe voluntarily traded places with another man condemned to death by starvation. Whenever the Nazi guard looked into the cell in which the priest was locked with nine other men, without any food or water, Fr. Kolbe was smiling, singing, praying and encouraging the others. He drove the Nazis nuts with his irrepressible joy. They did not know what to make of him.

I want that kind of joy!

A joy not predicated on external circumstances. A spiritual joy grounded in the love of Christ. A generous joy that finds more fulfillment in what is given away than in what is kept. A joy that can shine in the darkest of nights because it has already tasted the bliss of God’s love. A joy that evangelizes in this world that is often sad, angry and despairing.

May the greatest gift you discover this Christmas be a deeper joy in the love that the Lord has for you.