A few years ago, I got an unexpected Christmas gift from a teenager who sang in my choir, which was a set of books written by her own grandmother, Canadian author Margaret Laurence. Among them was a children’s book, “An Olden Days’ Coat” – a delightful Christmas-themed story, in which a child is allowed to open one of her Christmas presents a day early, without realizing that she was about to be given an even greater gift: a supernatural experience the value of which far exceeded that of any material object.
Of course, ever since we’ve read this book, my kids decided that they would open one of their Christmas presents a day early; and I don’t mind. But, in light of today’s epistle reading, it also makes me think that God does something similar for us. We are still waiting to observe Christ’s Incarnation, as we are also anticipating the “final feast” -- his coming again on the Last Day. But, while the assurance of everlasting life is certainly God’s greatest promise to us, there is another gift that he reveals well before his second coming; the one for us to open today because God knows we need it now much more than we will in heaven. And that is the gift of Joy.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, when the previously penitential tone of the season, with the apocalyptic doom and gloom, and the admonitions of John the Baptist, begins to lighten up, as indicated by the special, pink candle (and in some churches, also by pretty, rose-coloured vestments). Joy is that gift that Paul in his usual overly enthusiastic, overachieving, overbearing manner instructs his followers in Thessalonica to make their own as soon as possible. He knew full well that as a fledgling community trying to make sense of their developing faith amidst all their difficulties and doubts, they truly needed to find a way to “be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances”. From this, the Latin name for this Sunday is Gaudete (Rejoice!).
Right... on the surface, this does not sound like a gift at all, but rather like a ‘to-do’ list – and a completely impossible one at that! If Paul had only written, “Rejoice a lot, pray often, and try to be thankful,” they and we could maybe say, “Okay, I’ll try.” But what are we to do with Paul’s seemingly impossible command as it stands?
My suggestion is to focus on the idea of joy as a gift, and prayer and thanksgiving simply being its manifestations, not prerequisites. Let’s move away from the idea that God wants us to do “a bit better” -- work on our prayer lives, remember to say ‘thank you’ -- and then somehow as a result, obtain this state of joy. This just sounds too petty to have come from our infinitely compassionate God, who already knows all our weaknesses and struggles with temptations, all the miserable days we are having and the problems we are facing, the challenges in our spiritual lives, the injustices we receive. Through Paul, God’s saying, “Look at what joy I have willed for you and already accomplished – open this gift and don’t keep waiting for heaven”. And prayer and gratitude will then come.
Of course, even Jesus was not always putting on a happy face. He acknowledged the human grief and wept with his friends, and he certainly did not repress his feelings when he got angry. But he did live out of an unceasing awareness of the Father at the source of his very being, and eternally present with him. And that’s how I would define “joy”. It is out of this unceasing awareness of God’s presence that we engage in prayer and gratitude – not because we must do these “churchy things” (or only when we have the time, perhaps), but frankly because it’s good for us.
Even secular research and practice in psychotherapy shows that humans, in fact, require spiritual experiences, a stance of gratitude, and opportunities to worship in order to foster their psychological well-being. Yes, we might sometimes look at our trials as an opportunity to grow, and at other times simply as something to be endured. But in any context, let’s emulate Jesus in his perpetual awareness of God’s presence, which is really the one source of joy we could always rely on. It does help to keep in mind the big picture of one day fully entering in his presence, when “sorrow and pain will be no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting”; however, we still need to find joy in this life, too.
So, let us “not put out the Spirit’s fire”, to use Paul’s words. Instead, let’s us, also In Paul’s words, “test everything, hold on to the good, and avoid evil”. For every truth that we learn from the Scriptures, there is also a cultural counterpart, a lie or a distortion that can easily destroy a sense of peace and confidence we have in our faith. But, we do have our own experiences, the written Scriptures, and the company of each other, to give and receive comfort and encouragement and to assist each other in testing out all these conflicting claims.
And the special church seasons and feasts, such as Advent and Christmas, are also there to remind us what to look out for in our lives as the smaller facets of this great big gift of Joy. For example, the peace even in the face of the unknown future, such as that of Mary at the annunciation; the connections with our loved ones, as shown by Elizabeth’s belief in and support for Mary; the trust of Joseph, who summoned his courage and transcended his desire for control in the darkest moment; the wonder of the shepherds that replaced their fear; the perseverance of the three kings; and the gratitude of Mary who treasured all those things in her heart. These are the “early gifts” from God to us, meant to be opened as soon as we can. Amen.