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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Advent 103: Rejoicing

The word "rejoice" has come up a lot in the Catholic news this last week or two, from two significant events. First, the release of Pope Francis's first apostolic exhortation,  "Evangelii Gaudium," (The Joy of the Gospel) and the anniversary of the promulgation in 1965 of Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), Vatican II's Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Many churches have already begun to sing the centuries-old Advent anthem "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" with its refrain, "Rejoice, rejoice! (Gaude, gaude) Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel." There's a whole lotta gaude goin' on these days, and I'm guessing that there are a lot of folks out there going, "Huh? Where?"
What did you go out into the desert to see?
"Gaudete" (Rejoice) Sunday gets its name from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon (Introit) of the day, taken from the letter to the Philippians, "Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete." Rejoice in the Lord always: I say it again, rejoice. And there is a lot of rejoicing going on in the texts of Sunday's scriptures. Isaiah 35 uses words like "exult," "rejoice," "singing," "joy," "gladness," and all in the context of deliverance from exile. The psalm, Psalm 146, is a hallel, a psalm that is framed with the alleluia, something worth remembering as some of us sing cantillated versions probably a little less than ebullient.

The pace of rejoicing slows a little with the second reading from James, as though the liturgy is hearing from the hearts still broken in the assembly, all crying out at one, "Why? What's to rejoice about? Why 'alleluia'? Why am I so unhappy? What about my job loss, that death in my family, my lost love affair? What about all that?" James puts the coming of the Lord into a different context: the waiting of a farmer for the germination of the seed planted with such hard labor. There is a sense that some payoff is imminent and inevitable, but one can't see it yet. Be patient, James says, like that farmer.

Then the verse of the gospel acclamation is taken from Third Isaiah, the jubilee exhortation quoted in Luke 4, and preached by Jesus in his "inaugural sermon" in the synagogue at Nazareth.
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor."
Hearing that text sets us up to hear the words of the gospel, when the imprisoned John sends emissaries to find out from Jesus whether he might be the One. There isn't much joy in the gospel at first glance: John may in fact be wondering, from what he knows of his kinsman and his reputation, if his release from Herod's jail might be forthcoming in some act of the Messiah, overthrowing Rome and the temple and starting to set things right in the world. But Jesus is not John, and has a different kind of expectation about God. It may be, and I think this is at the heart of the scriptures today, that Jesus has a different God, which leads him to expect God's appearance in different ways. See, if John thinks that there battle is ahead, and that God is going to fight it and win it, he has already given Herod and Caesar the power they need to continue to rule. But Jesus has a different insight: the reign of God is already here, but it's not what John, or a lot of other people, including his disciples, have been expecting. Something else is happening.
What did you go out into the desert to see?
The vision of Jesus, foreshadowed for us in the verse from Isaiah 61 that preceded the gospel, is that the gospel of the empire of God is going to be good news for the poor. But more subtly than that, the God whose empire is arriving will not, in fact, be the apocalyptic harvester "burning the chaff in unquenchable fire," nor will his messiah baptize with fire, except with a fire of ardor for service, a fire that consumes the self in creative sacrifice, self-gift. John wants to know if Jesus is the one who is going to lay the ax to the root of the tree. Jesus wants to bring him along into the empire of God and tells John's disciples to report back "what you hear and see,
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
He's asking John what he is about to ask his own listeners: What were you looking for? Our vision of who God is and what we expect of God's reign will shape our expectations. We'll look for a messiah who brings that God. We'll look for signs in our world, in our own lives, that indicate that God is showing up. Jesus says, these are the signs of the real God: Healing. Restoration. Amazing changes of life. Reversal of fortune for the least fortunate of all. If we are looking for something else, we're not looking for God at all. Not even if we're a Christian, a bishop, a televangelist, or John the Baptizer.
What did you go out into the desert to see?
At the same time, there is a tragic, or at least oxymoronic kind of poverty in us who believe in the gospel of prosperity, who believe that God is going to make everything all right for us, who think we can be happy while other people are suffering. And so the gospel is genuinely good news for everyone who comes to realize, in the midst of ownership and acquisition and desire, that nothing satisfies for long, and who respond to God's word by turning around and making a change in the way we do things. This realization is central to the message of Jesus, who calls us to "turn way from sin," that is, from the gods and habits that turn us inward and away from one another, and "believe in the good news" of a God who wants us to act like the family that we are, that we are created to be. Before that move, we need to do a basic inventory of our interior life, but in the context of membership in the human family: are we happy? Has everything we've acquired, wanted, and stored up against the inevitable future where death lingers satisfied us, or just made us want more? And all that stuff, so much more than we need, how much of it could have made other lives a little bit better?

Jesus invites us to see differently. Much as on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) we hear the gospel of the Man Born Blind, and how everything depends on what we're looking for, and how we can be full-sighted, 20-10 visionaries and still be blind, Gaudete Sunday in the middle of Advent asks us what we're looking for, so that we don't get too far along in this season before we realign our desire with the reign of this particular God of Jesus and remember what it means to rejoice. The psalm really leads us into it in the liturgy Sunday. Why rejoice? Why alleluia? Well,
The LORD God keeps faith forever,
  • secures justice for the oppressed,
  • gives food to the hungry.
  • sets captives free.
  • gives sight to the blind;
  • raises up those who were bowed down.
  • loves the just;
  • protects strangers.
  • The fatherless and the widow he sustains 
  • the way of the wicked he thwarts.
Is that the God we're looking for? It is if we are oppressed, hungry, captive, blind, bowed down, just, a stranger, fatherless or widowed. The arrival of that God, and the messiah of that God, and the people of that God, is pure joy. Equally true is that God rejoices in doing that work, and those who participate with God in that work also participate in that incarnate joy. How else can St. Paul, in that opening song, give us the exhortation to "Rejoice in the Lord always"? So I think Advent rejoicing comes down to that question that Jesus poses twice in the gospel:
What did you go out into the desert to see?
If our desire can shift from making ourselves happy to bringing happiness to those who are most estranged from happiness, we can come to know the God of the psalm, the God of Isaiah, and the God of Jesus. Even if healing and reconciliation seem to be delayed or even suppressed by the intransigence and inertia of those who go out into the desert to see someone dressed in imperial colors, we can find the joy of the farmer who awaits the yield of soil. Something wonderful is coming. Wait for it, you who labor, and rejoice.