Sunday: 16 December, 2102 –– The Second Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14–18a / Philippians 4:4–7 / Luke 3:10–18
Today is Gaudete Sunday –– Latin for rejoice! The Church gives us readings that emphasize the joyous anticipation of the Lord's coming. Zephaniah says, Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! Sing joyfully O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
I had prepared a homily about rejoicing that I hoped would be challenging and yet pleasant, and then the news came on Friday of the horrible shooting at the Connecticut elementary school and I had to start over. What is a call to Rejoice as we try to wrap our minds around this awful event? Do we, as Christians, understand that faith, hope, joy and love are real even though we can no longer assume our communities are extensions of Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry”?
Christian joy is something that goes beyond circumstances. We live in a society that is obsessed with happiness, but happiness is mostly circumstantial. Today’s second reading speaks powerfully to this (especially if we know the circumstances in which it was written): Paul exhorts the Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice! He wrote this when he was in prison (just for being a Christian, no less). He adds to the context as the readings concludes: Then the peace of God that passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Joy and peace go together.
It is so easy to confuse joy with happiness. It is so natural for us to want to be happy, and and we are so quickly aware of our circumstances. Seemingly, if our circumstances are pleasant we are happy, and if our circumstances are unpleasant we are not happy. If this were all there is to Christian Faith we are wasting a lot of time and money in the Church!
Yet I am not implying that Christian Faith trivializes circumstances. In his letter to the Romans Paul says, Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (12:15). So today, on this Rejoice Sunday, our hearts cry out for the families of those children and the others who died. Our hearts cry out in a world that is broken, where circumstances are so crushing that we wonder how such evil is possible.
Still, beyond this –– deeper than this –– is a joy that goes beyond circumstances. As we prepare for Christmas we reflect once again on the incredible truth that God himself became one of us and chose to come into this world that is broken and too often throws things across our paths that are too horrible to imagine. I have often taken refuge in something the British author Dorothy Sayers once wrote:
....for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is –– limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death –– He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself (Creed or Chaos).
Even at Christmas we need to remember that Jesus came into our world to die. A mere three days into the actual “Christmas Season” the Church honors the Holy Innocents; this year, our remembrance begins early.
With some irony, hard things can help us grasp the true nature of life in this world and the reason Christian joy is so important. In yet another letter, St Paul gives this perspective: This world in its present form is passing away (1Cor 7:31). This reminds me of one of the last things Jesus told his disciples before he went to the cross: In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33b).
On this “Rejoice Sunday”, the Church points us to John the Baptizer with his preaching of repentance. John even promises judgment (the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire), and then Luke gives this comment: Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people. How many of us connect “repentance” with “good news”? John essentially says, “Turn away from the things you think will make you happy so you can discover what real happiness is.” It is right to pray for repentance –– for our world.... for our nation.... for ourselves.
Do we understand that there is no true and lasting joy apart from following Jesus? And yet we can’t just decide to be joyful on our own. How can we have joy when our world goes into a tailspin of grief? We have to come to the Lord every day and say, “I can’t do this apart from surrendering everything to you.... live in me... live through me.”
God wants to give us eternal joy. The joy of the Lord is found in a faith that recognizes that God is always at work for our good –– for our salvation. That was the Good News even in Zephaniah’s day. Hear St Paul again on this Advent Sunday: Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice! God’s salvation is not only on the way; it is here and now for all who will see it, even in a broken and sorrowful world. Then the peace of God that passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. And once more hear what our Lord tells us: In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. That is why, in faith, we rejoice.