I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
A lot of people who don't do my job will find it mildly weird that the place where I most often hear that reading, the second reading for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, is at funerals. I don't believe it's one of the readings in the Rite, but it gets chosen more often than you might think. I'm guessing that people don't always want what they perceive to be "downer" readings from the bible for the funeral of a family member or friend, but are looking for something "upbeat." And this reading fits the bill, as it continues to admonish us to "have no anxiety at all," and await the "peace that surpasses understanding." I love that. There's a deep-down faith that clings to that kind of inner peace in difficult times like death.
Which is why "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is such a great song during the late part of Advent especially, and especially on this Sunday, with it's climactic refrain proclaiming "Rejoice! Rejoice!" After verses whose minor-modal pleas to God under seven Old Testament names attest to the pain of exile, death, and darkness, the refrain carries the kerygma of the immanent birth of Emmanuel. As always with scriptural and therefore liturgical uses of the word "Israel" in texts, we should be careful to understand that Israel is a "we" and not a "them." I think we do identify with the text in its spirit, that is, we know something is wrong, we feel like we're in exile, we have experiences of loss, alienation, and death, but the One to whom we cry "Come!" and from whom we hear the exultant cry "Rejoice" is for us, now, and not only for "them, someday." (Footnote, back on the subject of funerals: don't you think "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" would be a great funeral song during Advent? I wonder why people don't think of it. In all my years of playing for dozens of funerals during the season, I can't recall a single one where it was requested. A lot of times I'll play it anyway, as a prelude or postlude.)
I suppose it doesn't hurt to ask you, with me, to remember that Christmas is, in Richard Fragomeni's happy phrase, "Easter in wintertime," and so Advent is like a winter Lent, which invites us to get in touch with the turning we call "conversion" or metanoia and prepare ourselves by changes in our activities and habits of thinking to live more authentically as followers of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan in his book The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Birth about the infancy narratives uses the word "overture" to describe their function in the overall composition of the gospels. The first two chapters of Luke and Matthew are "gospels in miniature," like the overture to an opera or a musical, in which the themes of the gospel, the meaning of Jesus, especially his death and resurrection, are introduced to the community through stories about his birth and childhood.
It's interesting that we're not given the three verses that intervene between last Sunday's gospel and this Sunday's, which give us a little insight into the personality of the proprietor of the Locusts and Wild Honey River Bistro. Crowds of people are responding to his preaching enthusiastically. They want to be cleansed of their capitulation to Rome and its emperor and storm troopers, they want to wash off their fear and despair and start over in the Promised Land. But John turns on them, rather like Jonah, who didn't expect or want the conversion of those to whom he was sent. John accosts the crowds like a cranky loner, and asks them, one can only imagine to their dismay, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Unlike the parallel passage in MT, John is not addressing Temple representatives, but the crowds. He wants to be clear: this is about real conversion, metanoia, and there's a price to be paid in blood. John may be offering a bath and a path through the Jordan, but "the one who comes after" is going to burn the house down.
Of course, he was wrong about that. Jesus knew that the Father's love precedes conversion, that the Father's forgiveness is already present. Sowing sin reaps havoc, but that's not God's fault. God was drawing near in Jesus to undo that cycle, and to plant seeds of a new field. John's axe lay at the root of the tree; Jesus would say, "Leave it another year; let's see if I can bring out some foliage."
"Produce good evidence," John says, in the verse that precedes today's gospel. You can imagine the crowd, the most intrepid and frontmost probably cringing, cowering, and wiping off his wild expectorations, timidly asking, "W-w-w-what shall we do?" They do not want to see the business end of the messiah's axe any more than they want the lash or the edge of the centurion's sword.
John's response is, in so many words, "Take care of each other. Be merciful, especially to those who are weaker than you are."
What should we do? Taking care of each other is a good start and a good habit. It can replace our habits of ignoring need, writing people off, grasping for every bit of immediate gratification. But for me this year the difference is a new recognition that this has to be because God has been merciful to me, and isn't laying some burden on me that God hasn't already taken upon divinity in the incarnation and life, death, and resurrection. I will not listen to prophets who use the threats of civilization, as though God were an insatiable despot whose "good news" was "behave, or else, and praise me!" No, I've come to begin to understand how the very habits of "being good" can actually get in the way of the expression of mercy and love. How else to begin to explain the exclusion of people that the church is desperately trying to summon "back home"? The easiest way to see this is to think about the gospel: Wasn't it good people, doing their jobs, following their rules and traditions, who ignored the plight of the man beaten by robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan? Wasn't it good people, following their traditions, who could not see the presence of God in a healing when it took place on the Sabbath? Wasn't it good people, following their laws, who collaborated or were silent as Jesus was led to slaughter? In every case, it was. If it's a choice between being loving and merciful and being good, I want to be loving and merciful. Isn't that what St. Paul was getting at in 1 Cor. 13, when his litany of mercy said it was possible to "give away everything I own, and give up my body that I may boast," but then say, "if I have no love, I am nothing at all"?
The word "advent" means "approach," "coming near." But who's drawing near whom? Do we think that somehow we can approach God through our efforts at being good? Or is the truth that we need to stop, find the signs of God's approach in our days, look for moments of mercy when life grew out of death, when someone saved us by going into the darkness ahead of us when we were afraid, or took the place of the victim on our behalf. God has come near to us, God has made an advent, in Jesus Christ who is the gospel, the good news. Becoming imitators of God's mercy invites us to stop "being good" and try something new, try being mercy. Try being love. That would make our song today ring with new meaning: "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!"
What we're singing at St. Anne on Sunday:
Entrance: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (at 2 masses, Tony Alonso's "Come Emmanuel")
Penitential Rite based on above
Psalm: Isaiah 12, Haugen version in Gather, using refrain 2
Presentation of Gifts: A Voice Cries Out (Joncas)
Mass of St Aidan
Communion: The Wilderness Awaits You or Walk in the Reign
Recessional: On Jordan's Bank (at 2 masses, Canticle of the Turning)