Hang on to joy when the toxic shadows of our world close in
Liz Stuart, 12 December 2021
Zephaniah 3: 14–20; Philippians 4: 4–7; Luke 3: 7–18
Today the Church goes pink or, to be liturgically correct, rose. We light the rose candle on the Advent crown, and traditionally purple vestments are replaced by rose ones. The Church only goes rose twice a year: the Third Sunday of Advent, today, and the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Advent, like Lent, used to be a time of fasting – 40 days of fasting in preparation for Christmas – and because the fasting began on the feast of St Martin, which is 11 November, it was sometimes known as St Martin’s Lent. This Sunday is known as Gaudete Sunday because of the words used in our second reading today, ‘Rejoice (gaudete) in the Lord always’. And like the Fourth Sunday of Lent, it was a time to let up a little on the fasting, to focus less on penitence and more on joy.
Why was John the Baptist the forerunner and not the Messiah? Some of his followers thought he was the Messiah. He had to keep denying it. He preached the kingdom of God, as Jesus did. He preached repentance and forgiveness, as Jesus did. He called out hypocrisy; Jesus did that too. He was killed for his witness, as was Jesus. He was not the Son of God in the sense that Jesus was, but how was that made manifest? I think the answer to that lies in joy.
The great Trappist mystic Thomas Merton said that ‘the only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own fake self and enter by Love into union with the Life who dwells and sings with the essence of every creature and the core of our own souls’. Jesus was in ‘union with the Life who dwells and sings with the essence of every creature’ and he knew it. This realisation gave him an unshakeable and indestructible joy at the core of his being that not even death could destroy. It also gave him the secure knowledge of being loved that allowed him to be undefended, compassionate and generous to others. That is what joy is: the realisation of grace, of God’s unconditional and unearned love for us. It’s so much deeper than happiness, so much more resilient than happiness. It remains no matter what life throws at you.
The mystery of Christian discipleship is that by virtue of our baptism we share in the life of Christ. So we should be as conscious as Jesus was of our union with the ‘the Life who dwells and sings with the essence of every creature and the core of our own souls’. This is why St Paul exhorts the Philippians (who were probably facing persecution) to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice’. ‘The Lord is near’. Indeed, he is near. He is as close as he can get. He dwells in you and you in him, and he ‘sings with the essence of every creature’. You and God cannot lose each other.
We should be as conscious as Jesus was of our union with the ‘the Life who dwells and sings with the essence of every creature and the core of our own souls’.
I wish I really believed this. If I really believed that I was unbreakably at one with God, if I really believed that for more than a few minutes at a time, I would be free from all anxiety, from all insecurity. And I think that’s one of the problems the Church has. Because we don’t really believe it or we don’t believe it for very long, we come across to others rather like John the Baptist: a bit glum, a bit ranty, a bit judgemental and a bit odd.
It is joy that makes the kingdom of God good news, that makes it about gentleness, generosity, thanksgiving and peace. It is joy that throws the doors of the kingdom open, along with our hearts. It is joy that makes what we believe attractive to others.
So, on this Sunday we are commanded to ‘re-joy’ ourselves, to find a way to believe again that we are one with ‘the Life who dwells and sings with the essence of every creature and the core of our own souls’, and therefore nothing should disturb or affright us, nothing can destroy us. We know as the prophet Zephaniah knew that there is nothing to be afraid of because God is with us and gathers us to him.
The challenge is to hang on to the joy when the toxic shadows of our world close in on us. And that is why we come to church week after week – to reconnect with joy, by reconnecting to the mystery of union with God, that mystery into which we have all been baptised. God calls out to us all the time, actually, to remind us to rejoice, if we could but listen. And today, he calls out to us through the colour rose. Gaudete in Domino semper. Rejoice in the Lord always. Amen.