(Today I’m swamped with reading dozens of student papers so I can post grades on Tuesday, which cut back on preparation time. So I’m slipping in a homily from some years back, slightly trimmed. In some regards, things seem to have changed very little!)
Today Christians throughout the world are celebrating the third Sunday of Advent. It was once called Gaudete Sunday, from the opening words of the entrance antiphon from the Epistle to the Philippians that we hear in the second reading, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near!” The words “Joy” or “rejoice” appear in today’s readings about 10 times.
Since the Middle Ages, the vestments of the Advent season were lightened today from violet to rose. Like Laetare Sunday, the third Sunday in Lent, we are allowed to peek ahead today, just to remind us what the season is all about. And it is all about joy. Joy is the common theme of all the liturgies of Advent, but it reaches its first climax today.
In the midst of all this jubilation, you might be tempted to wonder why we have to be reminded to rejoice. But many things can make people sad at this time of year — stress, work pressure, high expectations, loneliness, poverty, and the fear of disappointment, especially because of the felt obligation to buy lots of presents for family and friends. People spend more money this month than during any four months of the rest of the year. And they go deeper into debt. That can be fairly depressing — unless your business depends on Christmas merchandising.
Many people have experienced the death of a loved at Christmas time. For them, grief casts a long shadow over the season, often for years. Some of us get discouraged simply because there seems to be less and less time to get more and more done before – well, before whatever it is that we regard as a deadline. Like writing Christmas cards and last-minute shopping.
Other people may get depressed because they feel so surrounded by commercialism, materialism, selfishness, and greed. They keep trying to remember something that gets so easily overlooked. We call it Christmas, but it has really become the feast of Santa Claus. It’s the arrival of that jolly old elf that really sets children’s hearts racing when they think of Christmas eve.
And so we have to be reminded on Gaudete Sunday not only to rejoice, but why and what joy really is. In the readings from Zephaniah and Isaiah, the
word for “joy” in our translations [renan] means joyful singing and shouting. Other words used in these passages [sasown and simchah] mean “to be bright, cheerful, glad, to rejoice, to be mirthful,” even “to be welcome.” Joy is mentioned more in the Book of Isaiah and the Psalms than in all the other books of the Hebrew Bible put together.
The Greek word used in Christian writings, chara, is a little tamer, more subdued and calm. It was used as a greeting, as when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary. But “Ave, Maria” and “Hail Mary” don’t quite convey the sense of deep happiness and real gladness that animates the Hebrew sense of jubilation — “Be joyful, Mary!”
This is not just good cheer or high morale. Here, joy means foot-stomping, hand-clapping, back-slapping, cheering, dancing, shouting, and generally going-over-the-top happiness. No questions asked, no permission needed, no excuses given, just plain, unalloyed joyfulness.
That kind of joy can’t be bought. It doesn’t come from Wal-Mart or even office parties. It doesn’t have anything to do with merchandise. It can’t be bought, but it can be caught. In fact, it’s seriously infectious. But you have to be in the right place and the right time. And that’s what the gospel is about, that gospel for today that doesn’t seem to say anything about joy.
When the crowds come to John the Baptizer, they have a sense that something is wrong and he might be able to help them. They were discouraged and sad and probably fearful. “Tell us what to do,” they say. And what John says is startling. “Be generous, be just, be gentle. Tell the truth and stop trashing each other’s reputations. Don’t gripe over your salary.”
He had to be crazy, of course. Who’s ever content with their pay? But John tells the crowd that someone else is coming, someone who will baptize the world in fire and the Holy Spirit. They needed to get ready. And they thought that was good news.
As for Santa Claus, some years ago South Africa’s Advertising Standards Authority banned the Post Office from inviting children to write to that jolly old elf on the grounds that it would mislead them unless the Post Office intended to give the children the gifts they were asking for. The ad encouraged “a falsehood that could break the fragile spirits of the already disillusioned youth of South Africa.” Officials added that it might also be extremely upsetting for children who do not receive the requested presents to think that they been too naughty during the past year. From a Christian point of view, what’s bad news for the post office is pretty good news. St. Paul tells us, after all, to present our needs to God, not to the post office. It’s doubtful that our petitions will be returned, as was the little boy’s letter to Santa Claus last week, because of insufficient postage or lack of a proper address.
But perhaps it takes a bit of anxiety and discouragement to appreciate truly good news. That may be why the gospel is preached first to the poor, to the oppressed, to the downcast, and troubled. The good news they are looking for is not about stocking stuffers or a third big-screen TV or that BMW you’ve always wanted. What they are looking for, and what they will find, is “God’s own peace,” as Paul writes to the Philippians, “a peace beyond all understanding which will stand guard over your hearts and minds.” The knowledge that God is near, in fact right here in our midst.
Now that’s a thought that might even help cure seasonal affective depression. As Zephaniah said, “May God rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in love; may God sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.” Big, noisy, messy festivals. After all, as Jesus taught us, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding feast… In fact, it is a wedding feast, the Supper of the Lamb. And yes, God sings, too!