The daily newsfeed is hereby interrupted. That worrisome, wearisome, ongoing stream of animosity and violence, of bigotry and racism, of a global climate running amok now pauses, at least for a moment. And in that poignant pause, the sound of rejoicing.
No, I’m not hallucinating; I’m just attending to the Christian calendar.
Apocalyptic visions and prophetic denunciations launched us into the first two weeks of Advent (a bit like an infusion of religious caffeine to jolt us awake.) And now we arrive to what some churches call “Gaudete Sunday,” from the Latin for “rejoice.”
There’s a rather complex liturgical history lurking behind all this, which only the truly religious geeks among us (ahem) likely appreciate. Advent used to have a much more Lent-like character and lasted longer (forty days, like Lent). The midpoint in the season was a time to relax our discipline, catch our breath, and anticipate more fully the coming feast – in this case, Christmas.
Thus the rose or pink candle for this week, to signal a shift in tone.
But isn’t this a bit too soon, far too early, grossly out of synch? I don’t see any pause in American-style xenophobia, no break in the outrageous political rhetoric, and few seem willing to relax their violent postures. If anything, the planet seems to be spinning even more wildly into a deadly spiral of chaos.
And still, rejoice.
That surely qualifies as at least peculiar if not offensive. Yet percolating in this odd calendrical rhythm is the equally odd character and energy of hope itself, which marks this whole season. In contrast to optimism, the object of hope remains unseen, often annoyingly elusive, perpetually beyond our grasp.
And still, rejoice.
Many Christians on the third Sunday of Advent will hear from the ancient prophet Zephaniah. True to form, this prophet is thoroughly disgusted by the state of his own community. God will “utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” Zephaniah writes – humans, animals, birds, and fish. And that’s just the first three verses.
But that’s not what we’ll hear from him on the third Sunday of Advent. We’ll hear this instead:
Rejoice with all your heart…for God has taken away the judgments against you. God will save the lame and gather the outcast and turn their shame into praise (3:14, 19).
Same prophet. Same God. Same conflicted human society. The whiplash-like turn in this biblical text has little if anything to do with humans figuring out how to fix things. God will do something to make the shift, the same God who was angry enough just two chapters earlier to eradicate life as we know it.
Who can say, exactly, how God does this, or even why? Zephaniah is pretty vague about the whole thing. But he’s convinced that God will indeed do something, a game-changing move.
And so, and still, rejoice.
For several years now I have practiced a daily moment of gratitude, of giving thanks – for something, anything at all. It could be as small as having coffee in the morning or as large as a life-saving cure for a friend who was sick. It doesn’t matter whether or not I actually feel grateful; I give thanks regardless. And I have to say, this has been life-changing.
Recent psychological studies suggest that an old aphorism might actually be true: I’m not grateful because I’m happy; I’m happy because I’m grateful. Of course, ancient biblical writers beat these researchers to the punch by many centuries. The importance, even the primacy of gratitude appears in countless texts of the Christian Testament (see Philippians 4:6 among many others) and it marks the primary act of Christian worship – the Eucharist, from the Greek word for thanksgiving.
Giving thanks when there seems no particularly good reason to do so can break the cycle of despair, open fresh avenues for engagement with others, and inspire that unreasonable and oddly motivating energy of hope.
And so, and still, and even more, rejoice.
That’s how I read Luke’s rather strange editorial comment about the preaching of John the Baptist, which many Christians will also hear on the third Sunday of Advent. After John warns about the coming judgment (“the ax is already lying at the root of the trees”) and urges a life befitting repentance, Luke notes: “so, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3:18).
Why would these wilderness diatribes count as “good news”? Here’s a possibility: In a world that seems so impossible to fix and so resistant to change, we can still do things that matter. For John, that meant clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, resisting corruption, and disengaging from systems of economic exploitation (Luke 3:10-14).
That won’t change the world! But it still matters.
We can’t measure the impact! But it still matters.
My voice is soft, my body slow, my courage weak! But it still matters.
It matters because we can never see the full impact of even the smallest gesture or the seemingly insignificant act. It is enough to do what we can, and then trust God to do that oddly mysterious thing that Zephaniah seemed so convinced that God will do.
And so, whether or not it feels like the right moment, rejoice.
The Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.