Summary: To understand our duty to ourselves and God, we must distinguish between seeking pleasure and seeking joy.
Third Sunday in Advent
Dec 12, 2010
Spirit of the Liturgy–Sunday Series
The haunting strains of chant mode 1 set the admonition of St. Paul in the Introit of today’s Mass, in both the ordinary and extraordinary form. The Church looks at the world through rose-colored vestments, not rose-tinted glasses, as she says and says again, “Rejoice in the Lord.” Yet the dominant figure in today’s Mass–other than our Lord Jesus–is the person of John the Baptist. This man, born just a few months before his cousin, Jesus, is out in an unspeakably hot desert, wearing rough camelskin, munching locusts, preaching fire and brimstone on the wicked, and the watchword of the day is “Be joyful”?
Perhaps we should look carefully at the Word of God today to understand an important reality–there is a big difference between joy and pleasure. And as we wend our way through kitschy and distracting Yuletide lawn ornaments, our thirty-fifth viewing of Ralphie and the “Christmas Story,” and acres of Internet sale ads, perhaps some time with John and James and Jesus would be the best preparation for the true celebration of the coming of the Messiah.
The wilderness of Judea is no place of pleasure. As you travel east from Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea, you experience some of the driest, least hospitable lands on earth. You descend toward the Great Rift Valley, hundreds of meters below sea level, and you yourself become very dry and maybe a bit inhospitable. Yet this is where John preached and baptized, in the little pools of water left by the spring floods of the Jordan. And this is where, as he baptized Jesus and changed forever the meaning of Baptism, John saw the Spirit of God descend on the Messiah.
On that blessed day, John was at the high point of his ministry. Both he and Jesus must have experienced true joy at that moment of Epiphany. The sweaty crowds, the scorching sun, the intolerable stench of the Jordan valley faded into obscurity as the revelation of God’s love swept over them. From that moment, John’s physical situation got even worse. He was shortly afterward arrested by Herod and put into a dungeon, where he continued to preach whether anyone would listen or not. And, after Herod’s pleasure party and rash promise to Salome, he lost his head to the executioner. Pleasure–not a bit of it. But as he heard rumors and reports about the One he had baptized, could he not have known the joy of the Holy Spirit as he realized his vision of redemption was coming true?
We must admit that an inordinate amount of our time, as individuals and as a culture, is spent in the search for pleasure. On a base level, we seek the best food and drink, the most comfortable temperature for our houses and offices. We select the music for our worship based on what we like, not what the Church recommends for our souls. Beyond that, we look for opportunities to mingle with people who think and say we are wonderful, and for ways to exercise control over others. That kind of relationship brings us pleasure. Yet such enjoyments are fleeting, and often mixed with a longing for more, for relationships more lasting and intense, for spiritual peace and union with Ultimate Goodness, Beauty and Truth. What we are looking for is joy, true joy. And we know, deep inside, that if we waste our time on pleasure, we may completely miss true joy. Those who stayed inside their palaces and soft garments completely missed the joyful message of John and Jesus–repent and spend your lives in love of God and your neighbor.
As we look forward less than two weeks to the celebration of Christmas, it would be wise to listen carefully to the advice of St. James in today’s short Epistle. The Greek verb stenazô is translated “groan” or “grumble,” and it is used in two contexts. The most common form of groaning is as “strong expressions for human lament and powerless suffering in situations that people cannot change on their own.” In other words, it is the groaning to God that comes from deep in our soul. Jesus groaned in this manner when, as Isaiah prophesied seven hundred years earlier, he cured a deaf man with a speech impediment. The groaning was an important part of Jesus’s prayer. It shows us the human nature of Jesus, the God-man who experienced as no one else could our human weakness. St. Paul taught “that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.” This is a groaning that we all need and want to do before God. We are weak. We are sinful. We all hope for redemption and look forward to that day when, through our own death, we will be fully healed, fully restored to sight and hearing and speech so that we can in perfect joy sing our Alleluia to the Lamb of God. Our groaning is transformed into an eternal hymn of praise: [sing Alleluia]