It’s Gaudete Sunday, the day when the Church dresses herself in cheery-looking rose vestments (in place of penitential purple), the Advent Sunday when we once again hear Saint Paul’s powerful message, which is simultaneously so comforting and so challenging: Rejoice in the Lord always. Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all [Philippians 4:4-6].
It’s nice to be told to rejoice. The lights and sounds of the season, the greetings we get in the mail, not to mention the shopping-inducing messages our commercialized, consumerist culture keeps sending us from every direction, are all telling us to rejoice. But what about the rest of Paul’s message? How about Your kindness should be known to all, and Have no anxiety? Just how are we supposed to do all that? Well there are people to tell us how to do that too, aren’t there? Isn’t that why we have advice columns, website medicine, TV talk shows, psychic hotlines, expensive psychotherapy, personal trainers, “life coaches” and - most ubiquitous of all, at least right now - presidential candidates, that all purport to help us answer that question? And then there is John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. “What should we do?” The crowds asked John the Baptist [Luke 3:10]. And John, being John, didn’t hesitate to answer – quite directly, giving each group its own targeted tailored to the specific moral challenges connected with each profession.
Now John’s people, so the gospel tells us, were filled with expectation [Luke 3:15]. Just what were they expecting? Santa Claus? Not likely! A year-end Christmas bonus? Probably not that either! For that matter - and much more to the point - what are we expecting this Advent, this Christmas? The Lord is near, Saint Paul tells us. It is he whom we are expecting. But then the conclusion Paul draws from that is quite the challenge: Have no anxiety at all.
Which leaves us where we started with the question: How do you live without anxiety, with no anxiety at all? How can anyone do that, with all the daily worries that weigh us down, the bills that never stop coming and seem to get bigger all the time, the sense so many people increasingly have (especially in the 30 years or so) that the economic deck is stacked against them, not to mention the big picture problems of the larger world that are anything but faraway - war, terrorism, and climate change, not to mention gun violence in schools, churches, and even workplace holiday parties? The fact that St. Paul made his point with such emphasis, even repeating himself, suggests that such anxiety must have been as real a problem for his 1st-century audience as it is for us, and that they too may have found rejoicing a bit of a challenge.
Today, Pope Francis has opened the Jubilee Holy Door at his Roman cathedral church, the Papal Basilica of Saint John Lateran. And all over the world local cathedrals and other designated churches have also opened special “Doors of Mercy,” through which all are invited to go on pilgrimage to celebrate God’s great mercy of which we are both the recipients and his instruments.
"This Extraordinary Year," the Holy Father assured the world in his homily at the Mass that preceded the opening of the Holy Door at Saint Peter’s earlier last week, "is itself a gift of grace. To pass through the Holy Door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them. It is he who seeks us! It is he who comes to encounter us! This will be a year in which we grow ever more convinced of God’s mercy."
As if he were anticipating Paul’s words of joy to us, as if he were himself challenging our anxiety and how easily we let it sadden us, the Pope continued:
"In passing through the Holy Door, then, may we feel that we ourselves are part of this mystery of love, of tenderness. Let us set aside all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved. Instead, let us experience the joy of encountering that grace which transforms all things."
This Jubilee Year should remind us that the rejoicing Saint Paul prescribe is not some passing sentiment, not some eggnog-induced holiday cheer, but rather is rooted in the new identity we now have from our experience of God’s mercy.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 13, 2015.