Back in 1999, just after my son had been stricken with Bickerstaff’s encephalitis, I went to Mass on the 3rd Sunday of Advent at one of the Catholic churches near Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, where he was hospitalized. I was feeling pretty low, to say the least, and needed some uplifting joy. The young priest emerged from the sacristy clad in a sheer, rose-colored vestment (similar to the one Benedict XVI is wearing above), greeted the congregation, and said: “You know, a person has to be pretty comfortable in his sexuality to come out dressed in this vestment!” Needless to say, the laughter that ensued was at least a small consolation to me. My son’s eventual complete recovery over the next year and a half was even more of a consolation!
The Christian Scriptures summon us to JOY. Psalm 126 sets the tone: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed...Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” Paul, in the first letter to the Thessalonians, puts an exclamation mark to that by shouting: “Rejoice always...”
But what does it mean to rejoice? On the face of it, there should be an easy answer. But things need sorting out in this often hassled and harried time of the Christmas holiday season, when we sing a lot about joy, while many people, especially this year, face staggering depths of depression.
The joy of which the Scriptures speak isn’t the same as “pleasure”, nor satiation, nor even the emotional high which we call “happiness”. This kind of joy is the steady assurance that our life’s inconsistencies and incongruities will be resolved: an assurance that what has already happened and is about to happen will enable you and me to sort out life’s conditions. This kind of joy isn’t delight in possessing something, but delight in the intense reality of being oned with God and of sharing God’s love among one another.
I think it can be safely said that our society today isn’t a very joyful society. You can figure that out simply by observing people, especially during this season, in the pushing and shoving of the shopping malls, or in any other place where peoples’ guards are down. There are a lot of bored, distracted, tired people wandering around our stores and streets: and they’re certainly not advertising joy.
Though people of faith live as a minority in the midst of a joyless culture, they are invited to participate in the scandalous, subversive activity of joy, by doing what the surrounding society seems incapable or unwilling to do in its sorry weariness. Genuine joy undermines frantic activity. It shakes us free from a world that controls us by keeping us constantly fatigued and joyless. And the basis of this alternative activity of rejoicing is the conviction that something special, not yet widely known in the world, has been and is being disclosed by God’s graciousness to anyone who will listen. The good news of God’s Word in Jesus to humankind, a community of hurt and hope, is that the Promised One has come and is coming: coming to transform us and our world from the bottom up. “...He will do it,” says Paul!
This promised change is described in concrete terms: that a “new heavens and a new earth” will be created; that rejoicing will prevail over weeping and distress; that people’s needs will be met; that things will endure; that people’s efforts will bear fruit, not frustration; that the elimination of violence, and the building up of harmony and peace are possible. In a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures which Jesus himself used in the synagogue of his home town, Nazareth, Isaiah, in Chapter 61, speaks of healing for those crushed or oppressed or despairing; of the cancelling of debts; and of release for prisoners: of general amnesty for all. A total transformation is foretold, a newness over which all will rejoice.
Such change and transformation, Isaiah says, is the work of “the Spirit of the Lord” who initiates the moves which lead to comfort, to resoration, to righteousness, to rejoicing. It’s the Spirit who brings newness to all those places where everything is hopeless.
Paul is clear in his direction to the Thessalonian Christians: “Do not quench the Spirit.” This becomes more understandable as you look throughout the whole epistle where the Holy Spirit is seen as the power which formed and continues to transform God’s people. The Spirit has made the Thessalonian church exceptional and noteworthy, in the midst of a world which is dis-spirited. And so, Paul advises them not to resist or squelch the Spirit in times of challenge and suffering. It’s this “Force”, this resilient free power of God, the Holy Spirit, who will work an utter newness in the world and its inhabitants, so closed to God’s coming in. As in Genesis, the Spirit of the Lord blows upon chaos to make a new creation. This Holy Spirit now comes to breathe upon human hearts and to usher in a new world, a new creation in human beings. This Spirit speaks of newness from God, a newness not at all derived from anything presently available in the world.
In Advent, people of faith wait each day for this transforming Spirit whom they, in the tired, bored, joyless, and closed corners of their hearts, finally won’t be able to resist. The decisive change wrought by God’s Spirit isn’t done in some nebulous heaven. The Holy Spirit works, here and now, in flesh and blood human beings, up close and personal, through an identifiable, historical agent: Jesus of Nazareth, confessed to be the Lord who comes.
There’s a remarkable and famous painting of the Crucifixion by Matthias Grunewald in the Museum of Unterlinden in Colmar, Germany. It has a fascinating history, both as to its creation and as to its preservation during World War II. The particular thing to notice in it is the figure of John the Baptizer on the right hand side, poised in a dramatic gesture, pointing his ascetic, bony finger directly at the figure of the suffering Jesus.
I see that as a sort of icon of what John the Baptizer does in John’s gospel account (Chapter 1), as he identifies Jesus, for the Jerusalem leaders, as “the One whom you do not know.” The question which is usually focussed on (and preached on) in this gospel account is “Who are you?”, asked twice of John the Baptizer. The leaders of Jerusalem want to find a label for John, to categorize him. If they name him, they can dismiss him. But John refuses to play their game. Deeply aware that “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease”, John, in essence, tells all who will hear him that that is the entirely wrong question. The real question is: “Who is Jesus?”, and John’s gesture in the Grunewald painting eloquently points to the answer. Jesus is the One who has come and given everything he has for other human beings, in love. The One who, in dying, sets loose the Spirit of God on them and on their world. The One who calls and invites all who are willing to show that same kind of giving love to one another. The One who will, in the end, draw all into the completeness of God’s being, which is love.
These last two weeks of the season of Advent might be thought of as the gracious gift of the Spirit of having not only our hopes and expectations, but even the questions which nag us, reframed and reformed. The Christ is the One among us whom we don’t know, an unseen, unknown Power which disturbs our sense of control and predictability. He, the Powerful One, won’t fit into any of the neat boxes which we try to build for him. He’s always beyond our comprehension. We can’t label what God in Christ is doing in our joyless lives so that they can be safely contained, so that we don’t actually have to change the way we live. The One whom we do not know is already among us through His Spirit, meeting us, inviting us to be one with Him. He calls us to share John the Baptizer’s role of pointing to Him, the source of true joy, to embrace the Christ in one another, our neighbor: in compassion, in justice, in love, and in joy.