Advent III

It’s nice to be here on this 3rd Sunday of Advent! We’re almost there and, as we come closer to Christmas, our liturgy reminds us to “rejoice”. This Sunday is known as “Gaudete Sunday”, the Sunday of joy, and this is why we light a pink candle instead of a purple one this week. We take a break from the spirit of repentance to remember the joy it is to know that the Savior is coming. I don’t know if there is a specific reason why we chose pink, I am not sure it is widely acknowledged as the color of joy, but of course it makes me think of the song: “La vie en rose”, where Edith Piaf sings that, because she has found love, the whole world around her seems to be colored in pink. It’s interesting because I read recently in an article that “La vie en rose” is not only a romantic idea, but it could be a scientific fact: When you’re in love, the chemistry of your brain is changed and your eyes see colors differently. Of course, you don’t see everything pink, but your vision is somewhat changed and you see the world in a softer light. Well, we know that already, don’t we? We certainly see the world differently whether we’re happy or unhappy. When we have joy inside, everything seems more joyful around us, or at least, we find reasons to hope. When we’re unhappy, the whole world around us can seem like a depressing place. And we can experience that during the holiday season. All the festive activity around us may appear in a sad light as we deal with our own issues with our family, our health, our money, if we feel we lack something or someone to live for.

And so, this is very wise that our liturgy reminds us to rejoice, with the pink candle but also with our readings from the Bible. From Isaiah to Zephaniah to Paul, the same chorus resonate in our church today: “Inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy”, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart”, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice”. The theologian Henri Nouwen offers an interesting reflection about joy. He says that happiness is this feeling that comes from the outside: We pursue happiness, because we think happiness is something we can find in the world. This is quite typical of what we do at Christmas: we seek for good food, nice presents, pleasant company. That’s what happiness is about. Joy, on the other side says Nouwen, comes from the inside. It is something that only God can give us, something that shines out of the darkness of our deep self, as the light of this candle shines through the night.

I was reminded of that last week as I attended a baptist funeral. A lady sang a solo, and her voice and the words of the hymn were so full of sorrow, but suddenly it turned into something so beautiful, it was filled with hope and joy, a hope and joy that came out of a deep place of mourning and pain. No matter how dark the world around us, when God gives us joy we can see the world differently, maybe not colored in pink, but we see it in the light of faith, hope and love, and it changes everything. Like the voice of this lady who was singing this hymn, we can find within ourselves something that is stronger than all the pain, something that helps us to carry on living, something that may be stronger than death itself: We find joy.

Now how does this happen? “Rejoice”, you know it can be just a word after all. Is joy something that is really in our power to make happen, especially when we go through depression or mourning or maybe experience sickness, poverty or loneliness? And if it is God who gives us joy, what can we do to receive it?

I must say I had a hard time pondering those questions, until I paid closer attention to our Gospel today. At first, this Gospel seems to be out of place for a Gaudete Sunday. Luke concludes from John the Baptist’s words that he was “proclaiming the good news to the people”, but his calling them a “brood of vipers”, his prophesying a “baptism of fire” and his injunctions to repent and change habits seem hardly good news. And yet. Yet as I think about it, there is a strong correlation between his message and the invitation we have today to rejoice because there is a correlation between joy and action. Joy leads us to action, and action leads us to joy. One of the best definitions of happiness I’ve heard in my life was by the philosopher Spinoza. He wrote centuries ago that happiness is about enjoying to be who we are. True happiness is the joy of being oneself. And he said, it’s not only about human beings. We only have to look at the playfulness of our pets or even of wild animals to know it’s true. The panther knows how to run and therefore she rejoices when she runs. The bird can sing beautifully and rejoices in singing. As human beings, we have many different abilities as a specie but also as individuals and we rejoice when we use our gifts and do what we know how to do: the athlete enjoy exercising, the cook enjoys cooking, the writer enjoys writing.

But it’s not only about physical or intellectual activities, and this is where I think John nails it. It’s about the abilities of our hearts. God has given us extensive abilities to love, God has basically created us for the mere purpose of loving, and we have to use our hearts to be happy. We are sons and daughters of God, not only children of Abraham, and we are made of stone, we have hearts of flesh. So we need to love, concretely, and that’s what John the Baptist encourages the crowds to do. It’s not new to us that we are called to change. We can hear calls to change everyday in our society, changes that will bring us happiness: Buy a new car, find a new love, make a new trip. But not only those changes seem often out of reach, we know also that in the end, we don’t find the happiness they were supposed to bring. With John, it’s much more simple. John invites the people to open themselves to generosity, to live faithfully their daily lives, to not take advantage of the little power they may have over people. John invites the crowd to open their hearts. Our heart is a muscle, we have to use it. By using them, we literally enjoy ourselves, rejoice in being children of God. On the other side, lack of happiness is often paralyzing. When I am sad, there is nothing I want to do. We often say when we have depression that: “Our heart is not in it”, and that’s very true. If we’re depressed in the season, maybe the best way to rejoice would be to find a little something to do, a little something to start with that helps make our hearts feel alive. John does not invite the crowd to linger on their sins, their shame, their guilt. As he invites them to repentance, he asks them to bear fruit, to be active, to do something. And he teaches that we don’t need to do things that are very complicated. I have two friends in a retirement house who are very limited physically, but one of them write cards everyday to the people she knows, and the other one has made it her mission to welcome newcomers in her community and has lunch with each one of them. Maybe these two older ladies cannot do much, but they use their hearts and their hearts are alive and you can tell they rejoice when they talk about their “ministries”. John invites us to give our coat not because we are bad people who need to learn how to behave, John invites us to give our coat because it will bring us more joy than our selfishness – not the joy of being a good person who does the right thing, but the joy of making other people happy.

A few days ago, I was coming back from DC to my home in Arlington and I missed a street where I was supposed to turn to get back on 395, and suddenly I found myself at 5pm stuck in heavy traffic downtown. I was feeling very frustrated and also angry at myself for not having paid closer attention to what I was doing. And then, as I was bitterly sitting through traffic, I saw this homeless lady coming to me. As I handed her a five dollars bill, she said to me: “I am so happy you’re here, it’s been half an hour nobody gave me a dollar, I think I am going to cry”. I thought I was going to cry. Suddenly, I found myself so happy I was on the wrong way, stuck in traffic, so I could help this woman. Her joy made me happy. Meeting one another made both of us happy, we rejoiced in each other over something that was really not much: a five dollar bill. We hear a lot in the Christmas season than the joy should be more in the giving than in the receiving, but to me, the joy is in the sharing. The joy is in the sharing as we care for each other and we experience the goodness of God in the midst of us. And that’s exactly what a church community is supposed to be.

The best definition I’ve ever heard of holiness was by a poet, not by a theologian. And this poet said: Holiness is the ability to be joyful. So let’s train our hearts to give and receive the joy in each other and let us rejoice in God because God, as holiest one, is the first to rejoice and God rejoices in us: “He rejoices in us with gladness” as Zephaniah puts it. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *