3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C ("Gaudete Sunday")
Text: Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18.
Gaudete! Rejoice! The tone of hope and reassurance in today’s readings is undeniable; yet yesterday, a gunman in Connecticut killed 26 children and teachers, and then himself. The juxtaposition is terribly stark.
Joy is an elusive thing, isn’t it? It seems much harder to find joy when we focus on the many challenges and tragedies we face, as individuals, as families, as a parish, as a nation, as a church, as a world. So many of those difficulties surpass my modest abilities to resolve, and I often wonder how much of a difference I can even make. Maybe that means I’m on schedule, though: I turn 40 next year, after all.
Faced with all these challenges, we find ourselves vulnerable to those who offer assurances of happiness; marketers play on our desires, but joy can’t be bottled and sold, not even at the LCBO. Especially in this holiday season, many of us will be doing quite a lot of partying; excess, though, is likelier to undermine joy than create it, as the physical pleasures of revelry steal--or as oblivion engulfs--the central place that belongs to love for God and each other.
So, if we can’t trust the advertisers, what do today’s readings have to offer as practical ways to find joy in our everyday lives, even in the face of tragedy? I found at least two good hints.
The first one comes from John the Baptist in the Gospel. Just before the opening of today’s reading, he is excoriating the Jews who are complacent, relying on their heritage as children of Abraham as sufficient for their salvation.1 Today, we heard them ask what they should do instead, and John’s answers sound like plain good sense: help those who need it when you can, don’t misuse power to abuse people.2 Jesus will take us further into love and commitment, baptizing with fire and Spirit,3 but for now, let’s just work with John’s simple commandments a little; Jesus will come soon enough, and we have work to do before we are ready for the fullness of Christ’s calling. It is surprisingly hard to follow John’s simple rules consistently. That fundamental decency demands a constant watchfulness, because it is so often tempting to take the easy or immediately gratifying option without even thinking about it.
Wait, wasn’t I supposed to be talking about joy? That sounds more like work, doesn’t it? Yes, and yet, when I engage myself fully in doing good work rather than thinking about it, I forget that it’s "work". Sometimes we call this state of consciousness "flow". Time and effort sails by unnoticed as I wholeheartedly engage in what I am about; I become part of the work, both process and product. When I think about it, I realize that I’m joyful then. It may seem a strange kind of joy, because it’s so un-self-conscious, but it’s no less real for that, and it stays with me for quite some time.
The other hint comes from Paul, and it is even simpler: let go. "Have no anxiety at all, but ... make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds ..."4 I can only do my own small part where I am, with what I have. The whole is God’s, is indeed God. It will be all right. This is simple, but it is to me a central part of the mystery of the incarnation: Even Jesus God’s birth in poverty and death on the cross will be shown to be all right, so little do we understand of the divine plan of salvation.
When troubles and worries threaten to overwhelm me, I can always come back to this. I need only do my own work, doing the best I can, right here, right now. To the extent that I trust God, the space once occupied by all those worries can be filled by joy, or as Paul puts it, God’s peace that surpasses all understanding. It’s natural and healthy to feel grief in various ways in the face of tragedy, but ultimately, we have to let it go into God, lest we become lost in it.
Maybe it’s middle age coming on, but my focus is less on changing the whole world at once now, and more on helping the individuals around me and the small communities in which I move. I don’t want to help them at the expense of others; it doesn’t have to be "us versus them". I just find that I have so much to do, and so much richness, right around me, that it’s all I can do to keep up with this little piece of God’s world. Who knows? Maybe the things I offer here will ripple outwards as someone whose life I touch will make a difference to others, and so forth. There are many whom I will never meet who are working in God, and among all of us, that adds up to the big change I dreamed of making all by myself.
Of course, this is less gratifying for my ego, but if I focus more on my ego than on reality, I run the risk of ignoring the realness of God and other people. It seems to me that keeping in mind the reality of others independent of oneself, which is the foundation of humility, can help us to curb our most destructive impulses, and lead us back to the basic decency and consideration John demanded of those who came to him.
What all of this has in common is: the more I let my focus leave myself and go to God, the more joy I find; perhaps it’s the same for you. I’ll give the last word back to Zephaniah, because even today, this much is sure: "Fear not, be not discouraged: The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love."5
1: Luke 3:7-9
2: Luke 3:10-14
3: Luke 3:16
4: Philippians 4:6-7
5: Zephaniah 3:16-17