Summary: The promise of Christmas is a promise of happiness, but on God’s terms, not ours.
Third Sunday of Advent 2009
climb down the chimney;
Put up the brightest string of lights I’ve ever seen.
Slice up the fruitcake;
It’s time we hung some tinsel on that evergreen bough.
For we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing
Ringing through the rafter,
And we need a little snappy
"Happy ever after,"
Need a little Christmas now.
Need a little Christmas now.
The well-known lines from a musical of two generations past ring through the department stores and big-box stores. The tinsel and holly and ubiquitous fat men in Santa suits combine to say in festive ways–come, spend your money. If you don’t get exactly the right gift for your child or parent or sweetheart you’ll regret it. The promise of Christmas is the promise of happiness, and commercial interests have capitalized on that promise so successfully that they make all their annual profit in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Christmas Day brings pleasure. But in my adolescence I began to realize that, when looked on with purely secular eyes, it’s the anticipation of Christmas that brings more pleasure than the day itself. This season, with all its hassle and stress-reactions, is a kind of trial by fire of our interior
epiekeia, the word that St. Paul uses to describe how we ought to be all the time. It would be good for us to take a few moments to reflect on that word and that attitude, and our behavior for the rest of the period before and during Advent and Christmastide.
St. Paul goes on to say: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.7 Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Taken by themselves, these words would seem to encourage a kind of passivity in the Christian life. But we can never take one line of Scripture out of context and build our life on it, as some heretics have done. Instead, listen to the Scripture that the Church gives us for this Sunday, but that we almost never hear at Mass.
“O Lord, you who sit above the Cherubim, stir up your mighty power and come. You who rule over Israel, look down, you who are the guide of the flock of Joseph.” “Alleluia, stir up O Lord, your mighty power, and come to save us.” “You have blessed, O Lord, your land. You have turned away the captivity of Jacob; you have forgiven the iniquity of your people.” “Say to the frightened, be comforted and do not fear: behold, our God will come and he will save us.”
The texts that I just quoted are actually from today’s Mass. A handful are in your pew missals; most are not. They represent the Gradual, Gospel Acclamation, Offertory verse and Communion antiphon of today’s Mass, which the Church prescribes to be chanted at those times.
These words of divine power and concern, coupled with Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s preaching, give us a fuller picture of the reasons for rejoicing. If we don’t get the whole picture, we might despair instead. Why? When the tax collector comes these days, they may hear the Gospel telling them to take no more than is due, but the very size of governments and the services we demand make the middle class pay almost half their income in taxes, and, to our shame, that government takes a 15% payroll tax from the working poor who barely eke out a living. Those who have two coats are encouraged by advertisers to buy two more, not to give to the poor, but to crowd their already burgeoning closets. And our soldiers and sailors are sent to far-off lands in what seems to be an unending battle to transplant the culture of Dearborn into Dar-es-Salaam. Meanwhile, back at home, our legislators are scheming to put our grandchildren into even more debt so that abortionists can kill more of our grandchildren. It seems on the surface that anyone who goes around rejoicing should be put on massive doses of psychotropic medications.
So why do we rejoice? We rejoice for the same reason that Jesus sang a psalm of praise on the cross. We are critical human components of God’s plan for the redemption of the world. Critical human components. This precious prayer from last Thursday’s Liturgy says it well: Almighty Father, give us the joy of your love to prepare the way for Christ our Lord. Help us to serve you and one another. The joy of Jesus on the cross was in His Sacred Heart because He was giving the ultimate service to His people. He was dying for their salvation. We can participate in that joy through loving service to God and to one another, especially the poor.