Gaudete Sunday after the Sandy Hook school shooting

Victoria Soto, 27-year-old teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School who gave her life protecting the lives of her 16 first-grade students.

Gaudete means rejoice. This third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday — designated by a color shift from violet to rose in the Advent wreath candles — is the signal that it’s OK to start acting more Christmasy. Up until now, Advent tradition has dictated that we be reverent and expectant without being too boisterous, or fixated on Christmas itself. That has created some tension between the religious holiday and the world around us. But starting with Gaudete Sunday, we’ve got the green light to start getting excited.

Of course this year, Gaudete Sunday is coming two days after this nation has suffered the unthinkable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, with 20 children and 8 adults including the shooter losing their lives due to the combination of a disturbed mind and firearms. At moments like this the world can seem a very bleak place; a very fallen place.

This might seem like an odd time to be talking about rejoicing. This Sunday is called Gaudete because that’s the first Latin word in its traditional liturgy. The full line is: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Always. Not just “rejoice in the Lord because things are good” or “rejoice in the Lord when something great happens,” but “rejoice in the Lord always.”

Those opening lines of the service and a reading in today’s Revised Common Lectionary are taken from Philippians 4 and the full passage — not all of which is said on Sunday — offers some very powerful counsel in the face of Friday’s tragedy:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

As a long-time contemplative with experience in both Eastern and Western traditions, I’m always struck by how powerfully mystical these paragraphs sound, and how this advice could as easily be found in the Baghavad Gita or teachings of the Buddha: “Do not worry about anything”; “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds.”

Even more powerful and significant, especially in the face of tragedy, is the second part: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

In the wake of tragedy and when confronted with evil, the temptation often is to wallow in it — to bemoan the wickedness of the world. The world around Paul, as he was writing these words, was certainly hostile. He was in prison! The message of good news he was preaching was opposed both by his own native Jewish people and by the occupying Roman Empire. And yet Paul says, put your thoughts on what’s good and beautiful and keep doing the right things and you’ll have peace.

It reminds me of a post I saw numerous times in different forms on Facebook on Friday as people were processing what had happened. It’s a photo of Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers) with an overlaid quote of him saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

Wherever there is hardship and tragedy, there are people helping, sacrificing. That is beautiful. Living in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy here in New York, I continue to see people motivated by the desire to be of service, to relieve others’ suffering. (And there’s still much to do.)

So here is something from Friday that is true and pure and commendable for us to put our thoughts on: Victoria Soto was a 27-year-old first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School. When the gunfire began, she hid her students in a closet, but stayed out in the room herself. When the shooter entered her classroom and confronted her, she told him her kids were elsewhere. He gunned her down and moved on, leaving some of her students safe and alive. Vicki is dead. The word “hero” is trite in such a situation. Vicki Soto is a saint. In that moment, she fully realized her potential to be good and pure, to be selfless and loving.

On this Gaudete Sunday, while we pray for all those who lost their lives on Friday, children and adults, including the shooter, and all those among their families, friends and community who are affected, let us pause also to celebrate Vicki Soto for her inspiring example. Vicki is not unique. There are always those like her who rise to the occasion. Beauty is there when you look for it, and it can bring us peace.

You can see all my Advent-themed pieces together at Please share this link, or just one to my blog, with anyone you think might be interested. Thanks!

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Larry

    It was not the fault of the firearm.
    WHY do people Like you fuel this! It was a disturbed mind. Bad people will always get guns….ALWAYS how do the good guys stop the bad guys? Police… Nope, far less then what the FBI says we need. We need better school security…. But parents hate the hassle of locked doors and being buzzed in, we sue over metal detectors we need to change a lot… But please stop blaming the guns

    • Phil Fox Rose

      Really, Larry, that’s what you take away from this piece? That I dared to mention that firearms along with a disturbed mind contributed? But what I really want to comment on is your suggestion that school security is the answer except there’s an illogical objection to metal detectors. I grew up when there was little or no school security. Maybe one retired cop sitting by the front door. I think it’s disgusting to imagine that the best world we can muster is safety through living in a police state. But this piece is about Gaudete Sunday and the wonderful hero Vicki Soto, so that’s all I’ll say here.

      • Anne

        Phil, your essays are lights shining in the darkness, and a certain kind of disturbed mind is drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Please don’t be discouraged your pieces attract small-minded comments.

  • Terry

    Thank you Phil for a an uplifting perspective on what can only be described as a terrible tragedy.
    I picked up the message of love involving sacrifice. At times of crisis, the goodness, love and readiness to even offer one’s own life in order to protect the innocent and vulnerable, come to the fore. Your reflection on the readings is more than food for thought.

  • Robin

    Phil, I agree with Terry. In the darkness, you have shown us the light of God and heroes like Victoria Soto. Tonight, my husband and I told our eight-year-old twin daughters about the tragedy because we wanted them to hear it from us first. They had questions and we tried to answer what we could. But most of all, they were concerned about the children who went to heaven and their families. We held our daughters close and said a little prayer. I’m sure tonight won’t be the end of this conversation.

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  • Ismael

    You think, or do you know if she was a Christian?