Second Sunday of Advent – Zephaniah 3:14-18; Isaiah 12:6; Philippians 4:1-7; Luke 3:10-18
The readings today are full of commands. Do this, don’t do that. And one of them is really hard, I think, really unfair: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!” Zephaniah instructs us. “Sing joyfully.” And Isaiah: “sing praise, shout with exultation.” And Paul: “rejoice in the Lord always . . . Have no anxiety at all.”
What if I don’t feel like it?
And what about all the many reasons there are for anxiety in the world?
Can the people in Paris rejoice? In San Bernardino? In Roseburg?
John the Baptist is a lot more reasonable in what he tells us to do, because he tells us how to act, not how to feel. I like how specific he is, and how modest, how proportional: don’t give away all your clothes, just your extra cloak. Don’t give away all your food, just share what you have. Don’t quit your job and become a monk but do your job better and more fairly, not collecting more taxes than you should, not extorting or falsely accusing.
In a way the fact that these instructions are so doable makes them harder to dismiss. We don’t have to be spiritual heroes to do these things, just good people. So what’s our excuse?
But still: there’s nothing mystical here, and nothing abstract. These are things we can do.
The problem with joy is that joy is a feeling, and it’s not the kind of feeling we can just turn on at will. We can’t make it happen. “Joy is never in our power,” C.S. Lewis says in his memoir, Surprised by Joy, a book all about exultation. Happiness we can do something about. Happiness we can help create. But joy isn’t happiness. Joy is an experience of something just beyond reach, something we glimpse rather than possess, and it’s fleeting, and it’s finally a gift, not an accomplishment. A surprise.
But joy isn’t happiness. Joy is an experience of something just beyond reach, something we glimpse rather than possess, and it’s fleeting, and it’s finally a gift, not an accomplishment.
This is one of the things I really don’t like about Christmas, this demand to be jolly. Here, here’s the Christmas tree: be loving, be giving. Now.
My mom always made a big deal about Christmas when I was a kid, with the tree and the food and the presents, and when I was little I really liked this. But as I got older I began to sense a hollowness in it, a falseness. Whatever presents I found under the tree, however much pleasure they might give me, in a few days it all wore off. I was the same person I always was, living in the same sad and empty house.
In fact, this is exactly the sign that joy when it comes is really from God: if we were making it up, we’d be making it up all the time.
What desolation teaches us, St. Ignatius says, is humility. It teaches us that God is God and grace is grace and that no matter how good we are, how prayerful, how pious, we don’t understand God and we don’t control God. We only believe in him. We only hope in him.
What desolation teaches us, St. Ignatius says, is humility.
Do we really think that the people in Paris died because they weren’t as holy as we are? No. Our Lord Jesus isn’t Santa Claus, nice to the nice and mean to the rest. Our Lord is all grace, all mercy, infinite mercy, given freely to all of us, all of us, whether we want it or not or deserve it or not.
But of course, that’s exactly what the readings are really saying, underneath. “The Lord has removed the judgment against us,” Zephaniah says. We haven’t removed it. “The Lord has turned away our enemies.” We haven’t turned them.
“We are confident and unafraid,” in the words of Isaiah, not because we ignore all the violence and suffering in the world but because we know that “God indeed is our savior” and that “his name is exalted.” He is “our courage and strength.”
The other day, on impulse, I reached for a book of poems I have on my shelf, and I opened it up to the title page, and I saw the inscription, in my mother’s hand, to Chris, Christmas 1970, and for a moment I felt tears welling up in my eyes.
Tears, now, all these years later? Joy? a brief welling up of joy? It doesn’t make sense. It’s illogical. Crazy.
But yes. Exactly.
The peace we feel, Paul says, is a peace that “surpasses all understanding.”
In June of this year a gunman killed nine people sitting in a prayer circle in the sanctuary of Emanuel Church, an historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina—a gunman who wasn’t Muslim, who didn’t come from the outside. As both the Pope and the president have recently urged us to remember, Islam is not our enemy; extremism is our enemy. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, in its best and truest form, is devoted to peace and is devoted justice.
But what really struck me was an amazing sermon given later by the interim pastor, Pastor Goff. The senior pastor was one of the people killed by the gunman, and Reverend Goff is taking his place for now, and standing up in the pulpit he made the crucial distinction between happiness and joy that I think is at the heart of the readings today.
Let me just read you a paragraph describing this sermon from a profile of the church published in a recent New Yorker:
“Since June 17, 2015,” Goff began, “many from around the country have asked: ‘How are you? How is Mother Emanuel?’ My response is: ‘With your prayers and encouragement and with God guiding us, we’ll be all right.’” Then Goff made a distinction between the everyday spiritual condition of “joy”—an intense awareness of the gift of life, the fruit of hope, joy as the very condition of being alive—and the banality of “happiness.” There was no happiness. But “even in the midst of trials and tribulations we still have joy,” Goff said.
This is the joy we have as Christians, not just a feeling finally but something far deeper: a faith, a deep faith, that God is God and God is mercy and that in some way we can’t explain there is a justice and a love at work in the world stronger than our doubts and stronger than our fears and stronger than any evil within us or outside us. This isn’t a matter of sentimentality. It’s a discipline. It’s a commitment. It’s an act of courage in the face of things, and it’s what the Lord is calling us all to do: to trust the light, to face the darkness, and to live with the questions.
This is the joy we have as Christians, not just a feeling finally but something far deeper: a faith, a deep faith, that God is God and God is mercy and that in some way we can’t explain there is a justice and a love at work in the world stronger than our doubts and stronger than our fears and stronger than any evil within us or outside us.