If we take our clues from social media and news broadcasts, we might be tempted to conclude that we live in very cruel times, with rising crime rates, homelessness, hunger, war, violence, and disease. That isn’t in fact true, but in today’s world, as Marshall McLuhan once said, bad news is good news. On the other hand, things could be better. They should be. But we have much to be thankful for, despite the hardship still very much the lot of far too many people.
This third Sunday of Advent used to be called ‘Gaudete Sunday,’ from the first word in the entrance verse, which was taken from St. Paul’s letter to Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5). That was when Latin was still used in the liturgy, of course. Calling it “Rejoice Sunday” somehow lacks a certain elegance. But that is the message. Traditionally, the violet vestments of Advent were lightened to rose, as well. Sometimes they still are. Colors aside, why should we have to be told to rejoice? That, if anything, should come naturally, especially to those of us who live in what so many people in the world still regard as the Land of Promise.
Nevertheless, there it is. We are ordered to rejoice. And, as you might have guessed by now, there is a reason. We have cause to recall
what it means to rejoice, perhaps especially on a day like this. The first reading, from Isaiah 61, repeats the injunction several times, first in the imagery of a desert suddenly blossoming with wildflowers after a long drought. The message then shifts to one of encouragement to those who are weak, frightened, and oppressed by disease and economic or political hardship — the blind, the deaf, the lame, and enslaved. The word of joy and gladness is given to those in sorrow and mourning. It’s easy to miss that.
According to Luke’s Gospel, in Jesus’ inaugural sermon he expands upon today’s reading from Isaiah:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’
Then he observes, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” [Luke 4:18-21].
Now, as then, the proper response to such a message should be joy. It was not the response of Jesus’ townsfolk, however. They tried to throw him down a hill. Not everyone receives the good news in the same way!
Jesus’ appearance, life, and ministry inaugurated God’s reign first as comfort to the poor and afflicted, freedom to the oppressed, hope to the desperate, and joy to the sorrowing. It was not very good news to the oppressive, powerful, vengeful, avaricious, and proud. Not then, and not today.
Not surprisingly, in the responsorial psalm appointed to be sung today, we find ourselves again confronted by the oppressed, the hungry, captives, the blind, strangers, orphans, and widows. The word “joy” is not found, but securing justice and thwarting the wicked are very much in the psalmist’s mind. Then the Letter from James talks about patience, hardship, and suffering. “Don’t grumble at each other,” he says. “Steady your hearts” is not quite the same as “rejoice!” but important, especially for people who have every reason to grumble. And finally, the gospel tells us that Jesus’ response to John the Baptist’s question about his identity is simply this: “the blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and, above all, the poor have the good news preached to them” [Matt 11:4-5]. John couldn’t have missed the point. But Jesus adds, most likely for the benefit of the messengers, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
And by now, we should have gotten the point as well. Hearing good news really means something to people who are used to hearing mostly bad news. And so our models in faith are the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering, including the prophets themselves as James points out. Their joy is rooted in their deepest longing. They know what they need.
Imagine, if you will, what good news might mean to those who are homeless on the streets of our great cities and small towns this Christmas. In years past, “homeless” might mean one of those chronically poor men and “bag ladies” who sleep at night shivering in cardboard boxes or wrapped in old coats and blankets on the steps of churches, doorways of municipal buildings, beneath underpasses, and sometimes in tents along expressways. Today, their number includes veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and families who have lost their homes to financial institutions — people who are often just out of work, out of money, and out of luck. Or perhaps just out of prison. (It might also be helpful at this time of year to recall that our nation has the highest proportion of imprisoned citizens in the entire world, including the greatest number of women. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm )
All want to hear some good news. And need to.
In his letter, James tells to steady our hearts because help is coming. Not just assistance, not just loose change, but salvation — a promise of hope, and a counsel of something more. “Patience” or “endurance” is how it is usually translated, but the word James uses means something more like “great-heartedness.” Hang in there, he says, continue to look ahead to a better day. The Lord IS coming. And that’s the good news, especially if you are poor, desperate, out of work, old, and sick. What Jesus tells John in his prison cell is that “the reign of God has begun. Look around you.”
Let’s grant that those rich in worldly goods often no longer know what their deepest heart’s desire is. So what God is telling us in these readings is that if we really want to hear good news, we must first own up to the bad news — which may just be a failure to look around and see real need, both in ourselves and in others. To become rich in Christ, to know what true joy is, we must face our poverty, our suffering, our oppression, and illness. Lacking real treasure, we have to learn again to long.
That is why Jesus’ appearance, life, and ministry inaugurated God’s reign as comfort to the poor and afflicted, freedom to the oppressed, hope to the desperate, and joy to the sorrowing. And why, amid all the material bounty of this land, to hear God’s good news requires continuous conversion — changing our way of thinking by putting on the mind of Christ; and repentance — changing our way of living by loving and aiding our neighbor as Christ loved and aided us. Healed and forgiven, we’ll truly have something to rejoice about.