I don’t normally have cause to travel around Christmas. I am here for the holidays with you! I pray that this holiday season is without winter storms roaring about. When you have to travel in such times, one can be quite happy that the airplane finally got off the ground. Once airborne, you were happy. A new round of happiness came when the pilot finally found smooth air. And even if it was 6 hours late, you are happy that you have arrived. When you finally get off the plane, pass through security, and at last see your spouse, your kids, your parents or grandparents, your fiancé, or whomever you have longed to see…. that is not a new round of happy. That is Joy. You hear it in the tone and energy of the voices, the embraces, and the hugs. And even when the reunion is right in the middle of everyone else’s way, when the reunion is clogging up the entire flow of foot traffic trying to get somewhere, you can’t help but notice even the most curmudgeon-y of travelers, however reluctantly, is giving evidence of a smile. Joy is embedded in the warp and woof, in the very fabric of relationships. Just like Mary and Elizabeth.
As part of the recent Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception we heard the story of Mary’s Visitation to cousin Elizabeth. Upon Mary’s approach, the child in Elizabeth’s womb “leaps for joy.” Elizabeth is overjoyed knowing the Mother of her Lord has come. If you think about it, we would never recount the Visitation as simply “Oh…and Elizabeth and her child were happy that Mary had come.” There is something more in play as Jesus draws near – joy draws near.
That is why we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from wording in Philippians 4:4 – Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! It is a Sunday whose very name asks us, “What gives you joy? What is the source of joy in your life?” It is a different question than, “what makes you happy?” – at least in the Christian context. In reviewing the stories of Scripture, it seems that people are “happy” – as in content, satisfied – with situations, possessions, their own accomplishments, or their general position in life. The rich landowner is quite happy with his abundant harvest. But you would not read the parable and conclude he is rejoicing. Being joyful is a different category of stories. In Scripture, there is a lot that points to joyfulness being best expressed in one’s relationships with others.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! So…. “What gives you joy? What is the source of joy in your life?” In the busyness of everyday life and especially the days before Christmas, I think it is a great question – and one which makes it necessary to pause – and maybe to see more deeply. I have thought about it and I am aware of those moments of joy. As pastor, there is a lot of “business” to running a parish – especially one as dynamic as ours. It is in those moments of busyness that the emergency phone rings, or I have rounds at the hospital – and in the sacredness of the Sacrament of Healing or “Last Rites” – I experience the joy of priesthood… and I am reminded of a source of joy in my life.
Where is the Joy in the Gospel reading today? It is not a gospel that just “screams” joy – kinda’ makes you wonder why it is chosen for Gaudete Sunday. The seemingly dogmatic, unbending, unrelenting John the Baptist – the one who just last week condemned the Jerusalem religious leadership as a brood of vipers – the one who was certain that judgment was just over the horizon and we all needed to get right with God – and is now jailed.
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Mt 11:2)
Where is the joy? There are lots of folks who believe John is having a moment of doubt and is troubled that all he had hoped for was now just so much flotsam and jetsam of a life dashed upon the rocks of disappointment, discouragement, and disillusion. Yes, he is there in jail, knowing his life will soon be over….and yet he hears of the “works of Christ.” He already has heard that the blind have regained their sight, the lame are walking, lepers are cleansed, the deaf now hear, the dead are raised up, and good news is being preached to the poor. The Baptist is already in relation with Jesus – and wants the same thing for his disciples.
Before Jesus says “Tell John,” John already knew. John wasn’t just happy, he was joyful. Joyful because it was a moment knowing he had done what was his to do: the Messiah is here, He is the One. While his life will be over, he attends to his disciples. He wants for them the same source of joy. I often connect this Gospel with another Scripture – I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete (Jn 15:11). John wants his disciples to know the joy that he knows. So, he sends them to ask the question: Are you the One? They need to hear the answer – the part of them that is blind and deaf to joy of the Gospel, the joy of Christ. All the signs of the Kingdom are there. Will they be curious enough to consider the meaning? Will they see that sign as a moment of joy amidst a suffering world?
What about us? What part of you and me awaits the Messiah? What part is blinded, deaf, mute or lame – or frightened? Those are good questions. If you are willing to ask them – if you are willing to be curious. And no matter the answer, we are assured that the one whom prophets and kings longed to see – and did not – the One is here.
Let today’s Eucharist be like the Visitation. Let your soul leap for joy in the great gift that is the Eucharist; in the One who calls you to come to the altar amidst your sorrow, fear, and doubts. In the midst of your questions, discomfort and anxiety. “Lord I am not worthy, but only say the word” – and the Word has been said. Come and Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.