Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rejoicing when all others cannot

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7

On this “Gaudete” Sunday (“Rejoice!” in Latin) of Advent, the Church seems almost embarrassingly out of step with the terrible sadness of our nation in the wake of two shootings—one here in an Oregon shopping mall, the other atrocity in a Connecticut elementary school. We may sing of rejoicing in hymns and light the pink candle in our Advent wreaths, but how much are our hearts able truly to rejoice on this sad occasion?

What I wish to say first today is that Christian joy is not an emotion. It is not like being happy or pleased. These things can come and go at a moment’s notice. Our joy as Christians is not an emotion but a kind of knowledge based on experience.

When St. Paul writes the letter to the Christians of Philippi, he is not trying to convince them of something they should feel. He is encouraging them in an already shared experience of a totally new kind of life—life in the risen Christ. This is the source of a joy that runs throughout this book, from beginning to end. So great is this experience of hopeful assurance that Paul can write these words from prison. There, in the midst of scenes of brutality and cruelty, he could write about joy, generosity, and hope. And Christians have been doing it since.

This should remind us that much of the Bible was written to, by, or for people who grapple with the worst in human experience. When we hear the words of St. Paul, we need to recall the setting in which they were written, and remind ourselves that Christianity is not about avoiding pain and sorry, but directly engaging it from the personal knowledge of Christ’s victory over death.

And that is the point we need to make in particular on this Gaudete Sunday. We rejoice because in Christ the Savior there is an alternative to the endless cycle of violence, hatred, and carnality. Because our Lord has destroyed death’s grip on our minds, we can look beyond it. And, when any one of us is temporarily unable to do so, the others are called to help bear the burden while our faith is nursed back to health.

St. Paul, in the above passage, gave the Philippians (and us) very helpful guidance on how to do this.

First, we are to rejoice…always rejoice in the Lord, even in the midst of our sorrows. This is an impossible directive when we think of it in purely human terms. But he tells us to rejoice in the Lord—in all that we have experienced from God. This is what we do again and again when we gather in worship, study, and fellowship. Our rejoicing is thus materially different from the World’s. It is a reception of victory that illumines the darkness of this world, revealing potentials and possibilities unseen to human eyes.

To implement this special kind of rejoicing, Paul immediately tells us that we must exhibit a forbearance, a gentleness, with all people. We must exit the culture of violence that surrounds us. Christians have always struggled to do this, but without it we are fatally compromised from the start. We need to be very gentle with others right now. It is a tender time for all who have hearts made of anything but stone. This is an important part of our witness.

Then Paul reminds us that the Lord is near. When he wrote these words, he thought that Christ would come in the very near term. That urgency marks all real Christian witness, even as we allow the time-scale to expand however God wishes. Christ is involved right now, right here. It all matters.

Our ability to speak meaningful words of loving support arises from the knowledge that the Risen Christ is absolutely participating in this moment, in this trial. He did not flinch from the Cross, and he will not flinch from our need in this errant world now, either. While we are given freedom to reject God’s loving purposes, we have not been abandoned. We—his hands, feet, eyes, ears—will be an important means by which Christ’s presence is made known to each other, and to a shaken nation.

Paul then advises the Philippians not to pour their anxieties into worry, but to offer all their concerns to God in prayer—mostly supplication and thanksgiving. We will do both of these today in the Prayers of the People and the Eucharist. This is a word to our information and social media age: endless immersion in the helplessness of electronic chatter and gorging ourselves on 24-hour news cycle details will not by itself make us better intercessors or more hopeful witnesses. It is simply another form of gluttony, another way to worry.

When we commend to God over and over those very real sorrows and challenges we face, it is a priestly act, and we receive something very real in return: God’s peace that “surpasses human understanding.” That peace is a gift from God. It is unlike human peace, which is merely the absence of conflict.

The peace of God is a state of communion with God the Holy Trinity. It means to share in God’s own being of peace, where love is pre-eminent. That peace is personified by the Apostle as a sentinel, a guard standing watch to fend off all that would deter us from our mission.

That mission must include acting to change the culture that has produced such grievous tragedies. It must also include our own admission of how we may be contributing to that culture actively, or by looking the other way when faced with it.

Each of us is struggling with something serious and troubling. For some, it is a matter of life and death; for others it is a battle of longstanding; for yet others it may be a sense of loss or disconnection. Real, faithful Christians must endure these things!

But we are still called to rejoice, not with a human-manufactured joy, but with the joy given to us by Christ himself, whose victory over death we share. That joy will not be overcome. Like a tree-root moving a foundation or a sidewalk, it will ultimately change the lay of the land, proclaiming God’s presence in a way no human ever could.

Rejoice, and again, I say rejoice! Pray, mourn, intercede, act for the betterment of God’s world—but always rejoice.

Collect for the 3rd Sunday of Advent
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.

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