Saturday, December 13, 2008

III Advent

December 14, 2008

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Canticle 3; 1 Thes. 5.16-24

Today is Gaudete Sunday. This is probably my favorite Sunday in one of my favorite liturgical seasons. Traditionally, on Gaudete Sunday, we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath. This pink candle is a sign to us that the shift has happened. Now there are more candles lit than are unlit. The light has won out and the darkness is not an eternal darkens.

Gaudete means “rejoice” and we should do just that on this Sunday. We should rejoice in the light that is winning out. We should rejoice in the fact that darkness has no lasting power over us.
This Sunday sets a tone different than the one we’ve had so-far in Advent. We find that word—rejoice—throughout our scriptural readings today. It is the theme of the day. It is the emotion that permeates everything we hear in the Liturgy of the Word on this Sunday.

In our reading from the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah, we hear

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God;
In our Epistle, we find even Paul rejoicing. “Rejoice always,” he writes to the church at Thessalonika .

And in our canticle, we find that beautiful song of joy, the Magnificat—Mary’s rapturous song of rejoicing.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

This emotion of joy is something we oftentimes take for granted. Let’s face it, joy doesn’t happen often enough in our lives. It is a rare occurrence for the most part. And maybe it should be. It is certainly not something we want to take for granted. When joy comes to us, we want to let it flow through us. We want it to guide us and overwhelm us. But we often don’t think about how essential joy is to us.

Joy is essential to all of us as Christians. It is one of those marks that make us who we are as Christians. If we look closely at the lives of the saints, they are the ones who show us the way forward. And they are the ones who are marked with joy. They are the ones who have let joy come upon them and transform them. They are the ones who, even in sometimes overwhelming and frightening times, when overcome by darkness and despair, have still let joy come to them and be present in them.

You often hear me commend The Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. In Lesser Feasts and Fasts, we commemorate our saints in the Episcopal Church—those people who have shown themselves to us as examples of positive Christian living. What a lot of people who enjoy Lesser Feasts and Fasts don’t realize is that there are actual criteria for people to be included in the calendar of saints in the Episcopal Church and thus, to be included in Lesser Feasts and Fasts. These guidelines are actually included in the very back of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. For a person to be considered as a “saint” in the Episcopal Church, they must have a heroic faith, love, goodness of life, service to other for Christ’s sake, devotion, Recognition by the faithful and historical perspective. They also must have “joyousness”

The guidelines go on to say: “As faith is incomplete without love, so does love involve ‘rejoicing in the Spirit’—whether in the midst of extraordinary trials, or in the midst of the ordinary rounds of daily life. A Christian may not fail in the works of love, but still lack the joy of it—thereby falling short of true Christian sanctity. Such joy, however, is as much a discipline of life as an emotion. It need not lie on the surface of a person’s life, but may run deeply and be discerned by others only gradually.” (p. 487 Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006)

I love that definition of joy. I want to repeat two parts of this definition:

First, “Such joy… is as much a discipline of life as an emotion.” Joy is a discipline It is a discipline that we must cultivate. And sometimes, cultivating joy in the midst of overwhelming sorrow or pain or loneliness or depression can seems overwhelming and impossible. That’s why it is a discipline. When things like sorrow or pain or loneliness or depression descend upon—and they descend upon us all—we need to cling to joy. We need to search deep within us for that joy that we have as Christians. That joy comes when we put our pains into perspective. That joy comes when we recognize that these dark moments that happen in our lives are not eternal. They will not last forever.

That, I think, is where we sometimes fail. When we are in the midst of those negative emotions in our lives, we often feel as though they will never end. We often feel as though we will always be lonely, we always be sad, we will always mourn.

But as Christians, we can’t allow ourselves to be boxed in in such a way. As Christians, we are forced, again and again, to look at the larger picture. We are forced to see that joy is always there, just beyond our grasp, awaiting us. Joy is there when we realize that in the midst of our darkness, there is always light just beyond our reach.

Second, “[Joy] need not lie on the surface of a person’s life, but may run deeply and be discerned by others only gradually.”

Abbot Philip Lawrence, OSB, the Abbot of Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico, shares a wonderful reflection of a young Vietnamese monk who recently died at the monastery at age 38. Abbot Philip writes, “My memories of [Brother John Dat] in the week before I left for Italy are all memories of joy and gladness. Brother John…seemed to have in that week some inner experience of happiness and it just sort of shone out of him. For an abbot to have a monk die is like losing a son in many ways. For the community it is like losing a brother. Such losses bring us always before the face of God. Such losses ask our hearts: Do you believe in the resurrection of Christ? If Christ has risen from the dead, then our brother has risen with him now. And Christ has risen and our brother will rise with Him and we can rejoice even when our hearts are sad at his sudden loss.”

That image of Brother John’s joy and gladness as being an inner experience that shined out of him is exactly the kind of true joy that is being commended to us in the guidelines for saints in The Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Joy doesn’t mean walking around smiling all the time. It doesn’t mean that we have force ourselves to be happy at all times in the face of every bad thing. If we do that, we become nothing more than a programmed robot or a trained puppy. True joy comes bubbling up from within us. It comes from a deep place and it permeates our whole being, no matter what else is going on in our lives or in the world around us.

In the Magnificat, our canticle for today, we find Mary singing this glorious song. Those words: “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” sums up in such beautiful language this kind of joy that runs deep. It is a joy that comes from deep within our very essence—from that place of our true selves. And it is a joy that allows us to say with humble confidence (and not arrogance): let life throw at us what it will. Even in the face of everything terrible or sad, I will rejoice.

Advent is, essentially, a penitential season. It is a season in which we acknowledge, honestly, that we have failed. It is a time for us to recognize that we are slugging through the muck of our lives—a muck we are, at least in part, responsible for. But Advent is also a time for us to be able to rejoice even in the midst of that muck. It is a time for us realize that we will not be in that muck for ever. The muck doesn’t win out. The joy we carry deep within us wins out.

So, as we gather together this morning, and as we leave here this morning, let us remember the joy we feel at seeing this pink candle lit. We have made it this far. The tide has shifted. The light is winning out. The dawn is about to break upon our long dark night.

As you ponder this, as you meditate on this, as you take this with you in your hearts, pay special attention to the emotion this causes within you. Embrace that welling up of joy from deep within. And let it proclaim on your lips the words you, along the prophet Isaiah, long to say:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God;

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