2018– Cycle C
Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Isaiah 12; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
“…we know exactly what we want and what we do not want,
there are so many different things which give us pleasure or pain,
now we want this and now we want that,
our joy today is our sorrow tomorrow,
we would like to be here, we would like to be there,
we do not want something and then we want it…”
This indecisive text sounds very modern for having been written in the 13th century. They are the words of the mystic and poet, Hadewijch of Brabant as she writes to a young woman advising her to embrace the harder road to spiritual maturity.
This being pulled from here to there; this erratic search for what will satisfy us is a particular characteristic of our culture and society. “…we would like to be here, we would like to be there, we do not want something and then we want it…” And yet we are not satisfied, are we?
Have you taken note of the verbs that are used in the Universal Prayers for Advent? Desire for. Longing for. Yearn for. Craving. Hunger for. What is it that you and I deeply yearn for, crave, hunger and desire for our lives? Do we even have a name for it? Paul does. Joy!
Echoing the prophet Zephaniah’s, “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult…O daughter Jerusalem.” and Isaiah’s words that we sang as our own “Cry out with joy and gladness…” Paul urges us, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”
Now that’s easier said than done when there are many of life’s circumstances that seem to exclude or prevent joy. To “Rejoice…always?” Is that realistic? Isn’t Paul being Pollyannaish? Does Paul know what he is talking about? Well, yes he does. Paul writes this letter to us from a Roman prison where he is being held in chains. He writes to the Christian community of Philippi which is imprisoned by internal strife between two leaders and external threats of rival teachings. Paul’s response to his personal situation and his urging to the Philippian community and us is to always rejoice in Christ.
Paul understands himself as being in chains for Christ. Beset by rival teachers, all that matters to Paul is the Christ is being proclaimed. He receives support and hope from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Christ will be exalted through him, he writes. “For to me, “life” means Christ…” Paul equates life with Christ.
What an antidote this is to the inner personal world Hadewijch described or to the value enshrined in our own national founding document which states that among our self-evident and unalienable rights is “…the pursuit of Happiness”.
And therein lies the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is something pursued (purchased?). Joy overtakes us; washes over us like the waves of the ocean. Joy envelopes us unexpectedly like a person surprising us by embracing us from behind as we turn our heads to see who it is.
Prosperity and happiness cannot be counted on. Sad and difficult situations cannot necessarily be kept at bay. This does not mean that God does not want us to be happy but happiness is not a guarantee or the purpose of the Christian life. Martin Luther King, Jr in addressing the pursuing happiness rather than living the gospel said: “The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may”.
Thus Paul calls us to prayer: “Have no anxiety, but in everything…make you requests known to God”. And so in the Eucharist after the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Deliver us, O God, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress…” We used to pray, “safe us from all anxiety”; that is, worry and fear. Distress is not quite the same, is it? It is anxiety that Paul wants to displace by prayer. A prayer which, despite our life situations, despite imprisonment and chains, despite exile, despite internal and external strife, a prayer which does not exclude or prevent joy because it is grounded in Christ Jesus.
How do we come to experience this joy in the Christ overtaking us? Various translations use words like, “kindness”, “gentleness”, and the “consideration for others” as the hallmark of a person awaiting to be embraced by joy. The 18th century English carol speaks of our anxieties, our consideration for others and the gift of joy as we sing, “O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy; O tidings of comfort and joy!