After the recent shootings in Paris and California, the ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq displacing more refugees in 2015 than any other year in history since the Second World War, and what for some has been a personally difficult and challenging year in 2015 — perhaps we are many in voicing our eagerness to leave the past behind and move forward.
What can inspire us to move on?
The Third Sunday of Advent is known traditionally as “Gaudete” — Latin for “Rejoice!” This is the Sunday when the disciplines of Advent preparation are relaxed, celebratory rose replaces the penitential purple as the liturgical colour, and the foretaste of Christmas joy is proclaimed. (1)
Enter the children! I suspect, if you’ve had children, hanging around babies comes close. It’s a good time of year to surround yourself with children. In the presence of new birth, my heart and mind usually go in a good direction.
There’s nothing like a pregnancy to inspire the soul. Is there anyone here expecting? Then this is your season! Rather than looking backward, waiting for a child to be born turns one’s sights forward almost compulsively in hope and anticipation.
A well-timed baby-kick during pregnancy, however, can kick-start this hope and joy in us. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s tummy gives her a good hoof (Luke 1:41) — true to character John the Baptist is!
Sometimes the baby-kick is not a very pleasant experience at all. It can throw you off balance, literally: A pink slip. A relationship break up. A phone call in the middle of the night. Interesting, in retrospect, how a baby-kick can happen serendipitously yet profoundly at the right moment in time.
The recognition of this ‘kick’ demands a response, does it not? Laughter, for some, if appropriate. Tears for others. Preparation, for another: We make plans, get things ready, and then move forward. When a baby kicks, it means things are happening in us and in the world that turn our attention forward, to what is truly important, to what is hopeful.
Another text read during Advent comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. During Advent the theme of joy is heralded by the oft quoted scripture: “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I tell you, Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) What is peculiar about the Greek here, is that the meaning of the word for “Rejoice” can also be translated as “Farewell”. (2)
Paul was in a Roman prison when he wrote this letter to the Philippian church (Philippians 1:13). If ‘rejoice’ and ‘farewell’ were synonymous, was Paul encouraging the Philippians to look forward to a future with Christ but without Paul? Was he in a sense saying ‘farewell’ to gaining inspiration and joy simply from what he had, to that point in time, accomplished for the early church? And instead, focus on the future and ‘rejoice’ in Christ-coming again?
In fact, the joy we celebrate in this season — as in anticipating the birth of a holy child — is not so much about a “pursuit of happiness” defined by the American dream and what we can accomplish, but rather a “longing” for that which we hope but over which we do not have control.
The German word “Sehnsucht” captures the essence of Christian joy, as proposed by C.S. Lewis. (3). Others have expressed this joy in music. But good music, even joyful in nature, is not about unrestrained frivolity about good times. Good music activates a deep longing for that which is not yet. A deep longing, yearning, for that which is promised and in which we can trust — this brings true joy to the heart.
In Advent we express joy not because of what has happened in the past. It does not emerge out of a soupy sentimentality, a noxious nostalgia. Nor is the joy we celebrate this season anchored always in bright circumstances.
Rather, the joy we celebrate is kick-started by the unexpected, surprising promise and gift of divine presence, despite the evidence of history and the proof of the present. The Lord is near! The Lord is coming!
And this joy brings forth from us an impassioned response for that which we wait. This joy looks forward. And its heart does not give up. Professor and Christian writer, Alberta Lunger, once told a group about a time her life had been crumbling and she could think of nothing else to do other than pray. Someone in the group raised their voice: “How long did it take you to get through that time?”
“Twenty years,” she said. (4) I suppose it also took Paul a good long while to learn how to pray through multiple shipwrecks and jail cells and ailments all which characterized his ministry. I suppose it also took Paul a good long while to encourage the 1st century (and twenty-first century!) churches to do the same. He never gave up. People of faith don’t give up, even though it may take a long time for prayer to be realized. In meantime we are cautioned not to react nor to resign ourselves to inactivity and passive self-centredness.
How do we not give up? First, don’t react to circumstances that don’t require it. Recently when I was pressed for time and had a shower early in the morning the hot water tank must have been sluggish. Because even though I cranked the tap towards the hot side, the water was still cold. So, I reacted.
I immediately turned the tap full-on hot. As you can imagine, soon the water was scalding and burning my skin. So, I reacted again, and turned the dial all the way to cold. In no time the water was freezing. I couldn’t seem to get the right balance because I was reacting.
The key is to give the hot water tank and the pipes time to balance out to offer just the right temperature. The key to living in hope-filled joy is to put up with less-than-ideal present circumstances in the belief that soon and very soon, with some patience and a whole lot of trust in God, balance will be achieved.
The second strategy for experiencing Gospel joy is not found in introspection alone, but ultimately in a desire to turn outwards towards others. Gospel joy is also shared joy. Remember all who are in sorrow, and care for them. Martin Luther King Jr wrote: “The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.” (5)
Caring for and reaching out to others may not always bring us immediate comfort, pleasure and leisure. But over time, focusing outward in acts of compassion will serve to heal our souls.
The forward-looking promise and gift of Jesus turns our attention to others, to God in prayer, and to God’s best things. The joyful activity that emerges can withstand the darkest of times, the darkest of years, the longest waits. So, fear not! Rejoice!
The Lord is near!
(1) Philip E. Campbell in David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor & Kimberley Bracken Long, eds. “Feasting on the Word Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.62
(2) Joseph R. Jeter in ibid., p.63
(3) James H. Evans, Jr. in ibid., p.64
(4) Joseph R. Jeter in ibid., p.67
(5) Philip E. Campbell in ibid., p.66