(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!
Expectancy… If any word captures the feel of the season, that might be it. Expectancy is wide – it includes both joyful anticipation and dread, acquittal and indictment, pregnancy and death, and a lot more. Dawn offers the hope of a new day after a stormy night. Latent in the dark days of winter is the promise of spring. And in the midst of our cares and fears, hope and fulfillment await. It’s Advent!
Trolling around the Internet, I found that according to the Collins on-line dictionary: “Expectancy is the feeling or hope that something exciting, interesting, or good is about to happen.” But right after it, I read from The Economist, “Why life expectancy in America is down again – Death and despair…” Still, my great go-to Authority (the Oxford English Dictionary) prefers optimism: “expectancy – the state of thinking or hoping that something, especially something good, will happen.”
Both senses can be found abundantly in Scripture, especially in the writings of the Prophets. But overall, as reflected in today’s readings, the promise of fulfillment, of divine vindication, of deliverance from oppression and tribulation tends to prevail over dread anticipation of judgment.
Today’s first reading is from the prophet Baruch, who was Jeremiah’s secretary and is perhaps better known for lamenting than the rhapsody we hear today, even though his name
means “blessed.” It’s largely a quotation from Isaiah 40:4, which we know especially from the musical setting in Handel’s Messiah, and is cited in the gospel reading. The more familiar and older verse that both Baruch and St. Luke are in fact citing goes like this: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill brought low….”
I again thought of this passage as I read an account the other day of the expected resumption of mountain top removal in West Virginia and Kentucky, where valleys will again be filled in by the hundreds with the rubble under new administration de-regulations.
This leveling and filling is not done to prepare a highway so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. It is done for coal extraction, a cheaper and more violent process than mining, both of which have already inflicted serious harm on the society and culture of many of the people of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky who have lived in those once-beautiful mountains and hills for over two hundred years. Most of them are now living in poverty and environmental illness. Mountain Top Removal is, in fact, the very opposite of what Baruch and Isaiah were describing. It is a great injustice to the poor, and to the land… all in the name of expected profit.
So what does this have to do with us as we contemplate the second Sunday of Advent? It’s a reminder that as Christians we should always be mindful of the needs of the poor and that we are commissioned to do something about it. You might even want to look into what’s happening in West Virginia and Kentucky and what our renewed dependence on cheap energy has done to the people there and is doing to the environment there and around the planet.
Returning to today’s first reading, like Isaiah, Baruch focuses on justice, which he mentions three times in this passage, along with mercy. It also figures in the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where he wishes that they will be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus has ripened in them. And it’s pretty hard to miss the point in Luke’s gospel about what John the Baptist was doing out in the wilderness of Judea along the banks of the Jordan river – preaching a baptism of repentance which led to the forgiveness of sins — to make ready the way of the Lord. To make ready the way of the Lord. The watchword is joyful anticipation.
Although the green hues of summer are now muted to violet, Advent is about Promise and Hope, the expectation of deliverance and salvation. It also looks ahead to surprise and fulfillment, which is the real reason we give gifts at this time of year, not to shore up the economy. Add an element of suspense, a young mother about to give birth, a longing for freedom even more than for reduced taxes and lower gas prices, and you have the recipe for an Advent observance that makes some sense. Like St. Paul, let our prayer be that “love may more and more abound, both in understanding and wealth of experience, so that with a clear conscience and blameless conduct we may learn to value the things that really matter” – justice, peace, and mercy.
It’s a wonderful time of year! For old-fashioned Christians, today marks the beginning of Advent, a joyful season of preparation before the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But to all intents and purposes (at least commercial ones), Christmas has been here for some time already. Thanksgiving has (barely) come and gone, but the “holiday decorations” have been on display in the big box stores for two months, garishly decorated trees and houses light up the landscape, and recorded Christmas carols are heard throughout the land, often twisted to advertise “product.” Shopping is on everyone’s minds – or at least their computer and TV screens.
The Spirit of Capitalism has triumphed again. Bigly. For the first time I can recall, there wasn’t a single airing on mainstream television this year of a religious celebration marking Thanksgiving and very few portraying the traditional family dinner. And even those often tended toward the comedic and satirical if not scurrilous. Americans now spend Thanksgiving afternoon shopping – or watching football games on TV while munching on pizza. Not too many years ago, some stores first began sneakily opening on Thanksgiving night, but it’s now an all-day affair. Who has time or energy to spend with the family at home when the mall is so tempting? Black Friday is well-named.
Once again, Americans splurged, setting spending records. And credit card debt rose proportionately. The fine print (only for the stout-hearted):
Average credit card debt has grown by 52% since the year 2000. In 2017 US households owed $13.15 trillion in total debt, about $931 billion of it as credit card debt. The average household card debt was close to $16,000. Total credit card debt has now reached its highest point ever, surpassing $1 trillion, according to a report issued last January by the Federal Reserve. As of May, total revolving credit balances were $1.04 trillion, an increase of 5% percent from the previous year. Americans are paying over $100 billion in credit card interest and fees alone, up 35% from 5 years ago. Bottom line: the average American has a credit card balance of about $6,375, up nearly 3 percent from last year.
At this point, the birth of Jesus may be pretty far from our minds. But one way or another, it is now officially Advent, and our thoughts turn suitably enough to the end of the world. Neither Advent nor Christmas have much if anything to do with buying stuff or spending money. They have everything to do with ultimacies — getting ready, preparing
ourselves to greet Our Lord when he comes in glory. And if I got my catechism right, when he gets here, he’s not going to ask us about consumer debt or our credit rating, but our credibility. Did we really believe what he said when he told us to be ready, watchful, prepared? To have our loins girt and oil in our lamps? To make friends with the Mammon of Iniquity, to assist the poor, and forgive our brothers and sisters while there is still time?
The readings from Hebrew scripture for this Advent season come from Jeremiah, Baruch, Zephaniah, and Micah. Each accentuates the message we hear so clearly in today’ readings and throughout the gospel of Luke, the need for justice. The first reading from Jeremiah sets the tone — the need to bring God’s justice to the world. In this short reading, the words for justice and righteousness appear four times in just two verses. All the prophets we will be hearing during the coming weeks repeat the message — “The Lord our Justice!” That’s to be our business this season.
In his letter to the Christians of Thessalonica, St. Paul widens the scope to include love — for each other and for all. For there is no true justice without charity, and no charity without justice, and no peace without both of them. He prays that God will increase their love and that they — and we — will live in a way acceptable before God. Justly and lovingly.
Jesus was very clear about that, according to Luke: “Be on guard lest your hearts become heavy from indulgence and drunkenness and cares of this life…. Be on the watch.” Despite all the woeful signs of a world ill-prepared to meet its Lord, he does not counsel despair or self-reproach, however. “Look up, lift up your heads!” he says. Why? Not because you paid off the interest on your credit card, but “because your redemption is drawing near.”
The real health of a nation cannot be measured in terms of Gross Domestic Productivity or how well or badly the fiscal budget is balanced. It consists, rather, in the degree to which love, mercy, and peace increase. “What does the LORD require of you,” the prophet Micah asks, “but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6:8.]
As Advent begins, it is a good time to take stock. How are we preparing to greet Our Lord when he comes? How will we as a people acquit ourselves in terms of the justice, peace, and compassion we are called to manifest to the world, especially to the weak, oppressed, and suffering? Will each of us be able to say that our values and attitudes were shaped more by the message of the gospel than the massage of the social media and the proclamations of our political leaders? After all, Advent is a time of joyful expectation, not of dread.
When Christmas finally rolls around, long after we are saturated with the plastic decorations, canned carols, animated cartoons about the early life of Santa Claus and Rudolf, and the endless accumulation of unneeded and often unwanted merchandise, what will we have in our hearts to offer the new-born King of the World? What does he really want from me and you? What is he asking us to bring to the stable?