The final weeks of Advent are about joy, power and majesty—all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
On the third Sunday our church puts aside the priest’s purple vestments with their penitential flavor; instead priests don rose-colored chasubles to remind us of the joy that will soon be ours. It is called Gaudete Sunday, from a Latin word meaning “Rejoice!” We are supposed to feel good because Christmas is less than two weeks away.
But can we rejoice when so many things are going wrong? Our economy is in such frightening trouble that countries around the world feel its impact. Unemployment is high and threatens to go higher. Millions go without health insurance. Many families find themselves one paycheck away from welfare. The looming clouds of terrorism never go away, even though we are so angry at one another that we barely have the time or energy to notice. Our country’s leaders face daunting tasks of reconciliation and protection. And some of us have personal problems that wear us down and will not go away either. When we look squarely at all these troubles, how are we supposed to rejoice?
Well, “Gaudete” does not simply mean “cheer up.” When Paul tells us to “rejoice always, in all circumstances give thanks,” he is not just telling us to lighten up. This is not about mere cheerfulness, looking on the bright side of things. Paul is not speaking about the joy of the lighthearted and carefree, but about a deep-down joy at the core of our being. There have been times when, no matter how many things were going wrong, we have been basically at peace with ourselves and with our lives. We have not lost sight of what we know by faith: that God is a loving parent who cares and watches over us. We are going to be reminded of this at Christmas, when we recall that God sent his only Son, of whom Isaiah foretold, “The Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim a day of vindication by our God” (Is 61:1).
From then on, whatever life throws at us, Jesus has been there, for the highs and the lows. Have you experienced the joy of success and a feeling of accomplishment? Jesus knows the feeling. Do you ever feel lonely or depressed or misunderstood? Jesus says, “Hey, I know what it’s like.” Have you known confusion or disappointment or failure? So has he. The Word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us. From now on, we are never alone.
In the readings for the last days of Advent, the church speaks not only of consolation but also of power and majesty. The Lord assures King David that his kingdom will endure forever. The angel tells Mary that her son will inherit David’s throne and that his kingdom will have no end. What is the power that these people are talking about?
David ruled over a third-rate power in the Middle East. The descendant who would inherit David’s throne was raised by a carpenter and a peasant woman; he spent a few years as a traveling preacher and was executed as a criminal. When John the Baptist announced his coming, Tiberius was emperor, Pilate was procurator, Herod was tetrarch and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests. These were the dangerous, important men who held power. And who were the opposition? Two obscure preachers from up north. Could the odds have been any worse?
Yet look what happened. Talk about upsets! The Caesars and procurators and tetrarchs and high priests are gone, and they left no mark. Down through the centuries, great nations have risen and fallen. Who has survived? Whose voice endures?
The impact of Jesus on hearts and minds has never waned. He continues to influence every corner of the world. He inspires fidelity, conviction, courage, generosity, forgiveness and mercy. Men and women have dedicated their lives to spreading his message and living by his ideals. His divine majesty is expressed in impressive and enduring cathedrals. He is celebrated in art as well; the most beautiful Christmas cards you receive reproduce great paintings that portray the mother and child of Bethlehem. And the soaring notes of Handel’s “Messiah” add to the symphony of celebration. This is power. This is majesty.
We cannot make light of the dangers and disasters that afflict us today, but we must not let them defeat us, either; we must not give in to despair. Beneath all the glitter and warmth of this festive season, a profound mystery is at work. Yet it can be perceived only with the eyes of faith. We look in the crib and see a God who loves us, not from a distance, but in our very midst, as one of us.