Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Stuff of Joy

   Third Sunday of Advent   C 
I was driving alone Friday evening
when I had to turn off the radio:
I couldn’t stand to listen to any more talk
about the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
It’s not that I’d grown indifferent or uncaring;
it’s just that my mind and my heart couldn’t bear
to hear the sad news repeated again.

So I popped in a new Christmas CD
that just arrived in the mail that morning.
Before I knew it, I was belting out Frosty the Snowman
with surprising gusto:
“…with a corncob pipe and a button nose…”

And then I stopped.

How could I suddenly be so holly-jolly
when twenty innocent children had just been robbed
of this Christmas and all Christmases to come?

On the Church’s calendar,
this is known as Gaudete Sunday:
out of Advent’s somber purple tones,
this streak of rose breaks through to remind us to rejoice.
That this ancient tradition of encouraging joy
should today be aligned with the terrible tragedy of current events
can seem a rather cruel twist.

But maybe—just maybe—
the combination isn’t quite as inappropriate
as it first appears.

We hear Zephaniah declare:
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Be glad and exult with all your heart!
We can forget that the prophet
is speaking to people emerging from hard times,
brought on by their own repeated infidelities.
The source of their joy?
Be not discouraged! 
The Lord is in your midst.

Then St. Paul writes to the Christians of Philippi:
Rejoice in the Lord always! 
I say it again: rejoice!
We can forget that the Apostle
is writing to a community suffering
because of persecution from without and dissention within,
while Paul himself lay deathly ill in prison.
So why the rejoicing?
The Lord is near.

It would be easy enough to feel guilty right now
for getting into the Christmas spirit—
as I experienced while in the car on Friday night.
But as I began to realize even then,
we really need Advent and Christmas joy now
as much—maybe more—than ever.
As we grieve the senseless death of so many little ones,
it is still right for us to rejoice in the birthday of a child
who came to teach us a way through life
other than the paths of violence and revenge.
As our time in this world is spent so often
passing though a vale of tears,
it is good for us to be glad
that we are only passing through—
to celebrate that heaven took flesh on earth
so that our earthly flesh might enjoy eternal life in heaven.
Such joy is not about glossing over the heartbreak;
it’s about recognizing that God is with us—
has come oh-so-close to us,
is bearing the hurt right along with us—
here in the midst of it all.

We’re like the crowds, the tax collectors, the soldiers
that came to John the Baptist:
we find ourselves asking, “What should we do?”

For one thing, we should pray:
pray for the souls of those whose lives have been lost;
pray for the loved ones left behind in sorrow;
pray for the marginalized,
for those who suffer with mental illness,
for those who themselves have been victimized
and so conceive of causing pain to others.
Prayer is more powerful and effective
than we often stop to realize.

And we should take action:
not with the grandiose promises of changing laws and society
which always follow on the heals of such cruelty,
but by making changes in our own sinful lives—
much as John the Baptist prescribed.
The workings of evil in the world
are conquered one heart at a time.

We should fervently pray.
We should repent, changing what needs to be changed.
And we should rejoice…without feeling too guilty about it.

The French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac once wrote:
Suffering is the thread
from which the stuff of joy is woven.
Never will the optimist know joy.
Commenting on this profound insight
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said:
Those seem like strange words,
especially for Americans.
We Americans take progress as an article of faith.
And faith in progress demands a spirit of optimism.
But Father de Lubac knew
that optimism and hope are very different creatures.
In real life, bad things happen.
Progress is not assured,
and things that claim to be “progress”
can sometimes be wicked and murderous instead.
We can slip backward as a nation
just as easily as we can advance.
This is why optimism—
and all the political slogans that go with it—
are so often a cheat.
Real hope and real joy are precious.
They have a price.
They emerge from the experience of suffering,
which is made noble and given meaning
by faith in a loving God.

Joy—it has been said—
is the infallible sign of the presence of God.  (cf. L. Bloy)
It’s that divine presence
which we seek in moments of suffering and sorrow.
It’s that divine presence
which we’ll celebrate at Christmas.
It’s that divine presence
which is the miracle of this Eucharist.
In the face of tragedy,
may it yet give us cause for rejoicing.

No comments: