In darkness, choosing the path to joy

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3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C: Dec. 16, 2012
Zeph 3:14-18; Isa 12; Phil 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18

We hear St. Paul say in our second reading, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” Rejoice: Gaudete! It is from this verse that this Gaudete Sunday takes its name. But how should we take these words of his? Is this just superficial, like glitter or tinsel or wearing rose-colored vestments? Is St. Paul just an overly cheerful person, a Pollyanna?

No, St. Paul is writing this letter from prison! He is probably imprisoned in Rome and is awaiting trial; he doesn’t know whether he might be executed. (In fact, this was probably his first imprisonment in Rome, from which he was released and then traveled and preached a few more years before being imprisoned in Rome a second time and then executed. But he didn’t know all that yet.) It is from prison in Rome, with a trial and possible execution hanging over his head, that he exhorts the Philippians, and us, to rejoice always. Why? How?

And these are especially pertinent questions to be asking as this Gaudete Sunday stands in the shadow of the school shootings in Connecticut just two days ago. How do we rejoice in the midst of this? Indeed, where do we find God in the midst of this? These are important questions.

I’ll come back to St. Paul in a minute; but first I want to take a closer look at St. John the Baptist, one of the great figures of Advent, who we see in action in our Gospel reading. John the Baptist’s life and being was all about preparing people for the coming of the Lord. And he went all-out: living in the desert, wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey; preaching repentance, baptizing, debating with Pharisees and Sadducees. He pointed out Jesus as the promised Messiah.

But then he too was imprisoned; and there he heard about what Jesus was doing; and it didn’t sound at all like what he had been expecting! For, as we heard, he preached and looked forward to the Messiah setting everything right: baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire; clearing his threshing floor and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. But from prison he didn’t hear of Jesus doing any judging or punishing! So he sent his disciples to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Luke 7:19) In effect: “Why aren’t you living up to my expectations? Why aren’t you acting like I know the Messiah is supposed to act?”—just as we might ask why he doesn’t intervene to prevent terrible events like the school shootings.

And Jesus tells him, in effect, that he has been reading Isaiah’s prophecies correctly, but only some of them; and that Jesus is fulfilling others of Isaiah’s prophecies, and doing it all in a different order than John expected. He tells those messengers:

Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me. (7:22-23)

And John then had a decision to make—as did Adam and Eve, as did every other disciple of Jesus, as do we. When our Lord does not do what we expect him to do, when he does not follow us, how will we respond? Will we turn away in anger and offense? Or will we follow him?

Down one of these paths lies joy.

Once, when our Lord Jesus taught his disciples that he would one day give them his own flesh and blood as true food and true drink, many of his disciples turned away and stopped following him. But St. Peter said, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-68) St. Peter had realized that, when it came to light and life and salvation, Jesus was really the only game in town. And the way to joy was to let go, and follow him.

And this is what we find St. Paul also doing, all the way through his Letter to the Philippians. It is a letter punctuated with references to joy. And it is a letter in which he shows how much he is enthralled with our Lord Jesus Christ. In chapter 2, he sings one of his hymns (2:6-11) that recounts Christ’s deeply generous self-sacrifice: who was ready to empty himself in taking on human nature in the Incarnation; and then went still further, in humility and obedience, all the way to death on a cross. And so in the next chapter, he proclaims:

I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord … that I may gain Christ and be found in him … to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings… (Phil 3:8-11)

This then formed the kernel of his joy. And so he could endure strenuous journeys with heat and cold, hunger and thirst; risk natural dangers and human threats; suffer beatings, lashings, stoning, and shipwreck (2 Cor 11:23-28); and still he could say, “I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be content … I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:11-13)

To be sure, St. Paul looked forward to the Second Coming of Christ, as we do during this Advent Season. For then “the sufferings of this present time” (Rom 8:18) will be over; and the great judgment that John the Baptist longed for will be carried out; and he will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order will have passed away. (Rev 21:4) This is our great hope in Christ: that all things will at last be made new.

But even now, as we wait, there is joy. And it is to be found:

  • in knowing that our Lord Jesus is real and alive and very close to us;
  • and knowing the intensity of his love for you and me and every other person; and the power to save and heal; a power which he exercises every day;
  • and being ready to allow him to be God, and to follow his lead; to trust him even when we cannot see; to believe him even when we do not understand;
  • to abandon ourselves entirely into his arms; and to entrust there all our cares and concerns, as St. Paul urges.

Here is joy. Here is peace. As Christ taught in the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. (Matt 6:25, 32-33)

What do I do with a love that won’t sit still, won’t do what it’s told? (from “Stray Italian Greyhound” by Vienna Teng) Surrender; let go; follow; rejoice; and become a channel of that love and joy to others.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! Indeed, the Lord is near.

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