Third Sunday of Advent B – December 11, 2011 – Rejoice About What?
Well, we’ve been here before. Every year we get to this midpoint in the Advent season when the texts of the liturgy speak to us about rejoicing. Even our liturgical color shifts from violet to pink for a day. Some of you might be asking what exactly is there to rejoice about, where is the joy when so much is weighing us down? Jobs are still scarce, the global economy is walking on egg shells, our federal government appears stuck in rhetorical mud, many religious leaders seem out of touch. On top of this bad news, personal problems also preoccupy us.
To help take our minds off the gloom and doom, and to spur the economy, the commercial side of Christmas is determined to change our mood. The news media includes heart warming stories to stir the spirit of Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa. It all seems to work. It effects us. Trees go up, we shop for presents, nonprofit groups get generous gifts, and, of course, Santa appears as the jolly symbol of joy. Where’s God in all of this?
It could be that so much is going on all around us, coming at us so swiftly, that everything is a blur and before you know it we are off to start a brand new year. We hear people say, because of the hustle and bustle, there is little time to pause and rejoice over the good things in life, and, dare I say — “the true meaning of Christmas.”
Betsy talked about this last weekend in her story about the toll booth collector, the unlikely prophet John. While we take for granted the people we can count on for love and respect, we sometimes overlook other people and things least expected to bring us joy. We could, for example, also be jubilant about how some of us have the freedom to make choices; to select companions; to get an education; and, yes, even to find that illusive job that helps us advance in life.
Last week, after Mass, I asked a few parishioners on the front porch what brings them joy? Some of the answers were wonderful and obvious: family, friends, good health, a job. I invite you now to mention to the person sitting next to you what one thing brings you joy. [After a while the assembly was asked to say out loud what brings joy.]
Someone also said that St. Vincent’s was a joyful experience; that this parish — made up of so many good, diverse, caring, hospitable people — was a welcomed oasis in their busy lives. Is that true for you? [Sustained applause in the church] They weren’t talking so much about the music or homilies or the ritual as much as the joy that is found in meeting new friends and growing in relationships with others.
What we heard Isaiah saying to the Israelites in today’s first scripture reading could be said about us and other faith communities. God clothes us with salvation and wraps us in a blanket of justice. That’s how close God is to us. God is not out there somewhere. These words hold up for us the promise that those going through tough times can be healed, released, liberated from it all.
Paraphrasing Isaiah we would say the people in messy divorces or mental despair can be healed; that students bullied and ostracized in schools can be liberated; that prisoners of sexual abuse, chemical addiction and human trafficking can be released from it all; that even the smallest concerns we might have can find relief. The question is: how can these things happen?
So much depends on how passionate we are about this message and how alert we are to the needs of others around us. The second reading said Christians test everything, we separate the good from the bad, we prioritize what matters most in our lives and … we pray. We do not forget to pray. Many are counting on you and me to be bearers of good tidings. Eric Weiner’s article in this morning’s New York Times suggests to me that we Americans need to talk about God again. How is God, if you believe in God, still at work in our lives?
That is what John the Baptist was saying in the gospel today. He was addressing an anxious and impatient people waiting for generations for deliverance from an oppressed life, looking for someone to bring them joy. John, whose father was a rural priest, was unusual in this task. He not only dressed and ate differently, his style was out of the ordinary. He belonged to a group of priests who countered the corrupt upper class of clergy whose lives were distant from the needs of the people.
Humble and to the point the Baptizer said he was not the answer. He did not have all the answers. We do not have all the answers either. However, we wrestle with the questions together in our church. John said he was not the light. He was only the bearer, the advance man for the light. His task was to straighten out whatever crooked paths he could to prepare for the coming one — the messiah.
This is a challenge I believe we can get excited about even if, at times, we feel down and out in our own lives. We have to step up because people are counting on us. In spite of our own misgivings and divisions, we have an opportunity as a church to mirror the radiance of the Son of God. We have to remember we are a resourceful church. (Some may have issues with the Roman Curia but we are a church rich with gifts and talents.)
All it takes on our part, if nothing else, is a gentle smile, a warm greeting, a peaceful embrace, an extended hand. Invigorated by our belief in Emmanuel, a God who wraps a blanket of justice and peace around us, we too can bring joy to the world.