Sunday, December 16, 2018

What Should We Do?

“What should we do?” the crowds asked John the Baptist. As well they might! After all, what question could possibly be more basic? Or relevant? Or universal? Isn’t that why we have advice columns, website medicine, talk show chatter, expensive psychotherapy, spiritual directors, psychic hotlines, and personal “life coaches” – that all try or pretend to answer that question for us?

No surprise, then, that the crowd asked that very same question of the Apostles on the first Pentecost Sunday [Acts 2:37]. On that occasion, Peter told the people to repent, and be baptized. John’s answer was similar, but he went into greater detail. Particular groups – tax collectors and soldiers, for example – each got specific answers targeted to them, tailored to the specific moral challenges connected with their professions. In our society, certainly, we largely define ourselves by our work. Everybody understands what is being referred to when someone is asked “What do you do?” John was neither the first nor the last to observe that one’s work matters, what one does at work matters, how one works matters. And not just what one does at work. When all is said and done, we define ourselves by whatever we actually do – or fail to do – in all the arenas of life – at work, at home, at play, with those we love, and with those we don’t. What I do – or don’t do – demonstrates who I am, the kind of person I am choosing to be, and, in the end, determines who I will be for all eternity. As one of the 4th-century Fathers of the Church, Gregory of Nyssa [335-395], once said: “we are in a sense our own parents, and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good.”

Of course, we now all live in a world, which has in some ways turned all that upside down and encourages us to shift responsibility to everyone and everything except ourselves. That’s what makes this Gospel story so especially appropriate at this Advent midpoint. The crowd’s questions and John’s very down-to-earth practical answers, as seen in the context of the Gospel’s entire message and as heard in this Advent setting, all seem to highlight just what is supposed to happen when we take the Christmas story seriously today.

Now the people, Luke tells us, were filled with expectation. For what? Santa Claus? Not likely! Their year-end Christmas bonus? Probably not that either! For that matter (and more to the point), what are we expecting this Advent? Surely, we’re not in expectation for Christ to be born. That already happened – a long time ago at that! We’re not play-acting here, as if living a Christian life were like some sort of perpetual Christmas pageant! The people, so we are told, all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John assured them that he wasn’t; and, with the benefit of hindsight, we know even better than his hearers. In his exhortations to the tax collectors and the soldiers and everyone else, however, John did tell them where to look. Repeating those long-ago exhortations to us today, John is telling us too where to look – in what’s going on in the here and now and the day-to-day. Because what was ultimately so especially extraordinary about Jesus Christ’s becoming part of our world is precisely how his coming has transformed the seemingly ordinary in human life from being, at best, merely more of the same, into an opportunity for something altogether new.

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the mid-advent Sunday when the Church decks herself out in cheery-looking rose vestments (in place of penitential purple), when we once again hear Saint Paul’s powerful message, the message that gives Gaudete Sunday its name, a message 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?

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 last 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 - climate change, faraway wars and not so faraway violence in our schools and even our churches, not to mention whatever private and personal problems we may be experiencing? The fact that St. Paul made his point with such emphasis, even repeating himself, suggests that anxiety must have been as real and present 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.

Saint Paul could talk the way he did because the rejoicing he recommends is not some passing sentiment, not some egg-nog induced holiday cheer, but rather is rooted in the new identity we now have from our experience of God’s mercy, revealed to us in Jesus. For it is not the ups and downs of our lives in the world that define us. It is who we are becoming by our experience of God’s mercy that enables us to rejoice and that counteracts the anxieties that would otherwise overwhelm us.

Advent expresses the fundamental character of our Christian experience, lived (as it must be) between Christ’s 1st coming in history and his final advent as our judge - and defined (as it also must be) by the Risen Lord’s continued and active presence among us, here and now. And so, our fundamental attitude (and not just at Christmas) must be to rejoice, in spite of whatever anxieties threaten to dominate our days. Our choice to rejoice results, Saint Paul suggests, in peace – not some superficial social or political peace, but the peace of God which surpasses all understanding [Philippians 4:4-7], the peace which makes possible the kind of  authentic and morally compelling life which John recommended to those who asked his advice), the peace which penetrates through our personal and social anxieties as surely as the rising sun on Christmas morning will penetrate and defeat the deep dark of the long winter night.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 16, 2018.

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