How does anyone get away with exhorting others to rejoice? If you are feeling down, does it really help for someone to come along and say, “Cheer up”?
And yet, without pausing to assess the mood and attitude of assembled worshipers, the Church makes bold to exhort people on the Third Sunday of Advent, ready or not, to rejoice. The tradition has its reasons, and the chosen texts are far more complex and challenging than any Pollyannaish efforts to jump-start joy.
To make it perfectly clear that Advent is a preparation for the celebration of a gift that is, in great part, already realized, the Church punctuates this season with the joyful note of Gaudete Sunday, named after the Latin word heading the second reading, quoted above. (Laetare Sunday serves the same purpose during Lent.) Heard in context, the readings give sober, even hard-nosed reasons for joy.
Zephaniah prophesied early in the reign of Josiah—when hard things needed to be said regarding the religious chaos left from the previous administration of Manasseh.
The part we read this Sunday comes from a hymn celebrating the survival of the faithful remnant, a passage that commentators judge was added after the Babylonian Captivity. It is sung, therefore, by a group that has passed through tough times. In the midst of those difficulties they have come to know the presence of God so vividly that they can picture that the Lord “will sing joyfully … as one sings at festivals.” How did they get to be rejoicing survivors? In an earlier chapter the prophet had said,
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth,
who have observed his law;
Seek justice, seek humility;
perhaps you may be sheltered
on the day of the Lord’s anger (Zeph 2:3).
This is not cheap joy.
When Paul exhorts his Philippians to rejoice, he is in a captivity of his own, in Roman custody while they try to figure out what kind of “king” and “kingdom” he is promoting on their turf. Like others who have been able to deal prayerfully with the enforced solitude of incarceration, he is able to urge rejoicing on much the same basis as Zephaniah's surviving Judahites: he has come to know the presence of the Lord. It is not wishful thinking but personal testimony that stands behind his pep talk:
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Second Reading)
Other imprisoned Christians, such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, knew this; and so can we all, whatever the present challenge in our lives.
Climaxing these readings comes the episode from Luke, the prophetic challenge of John the Baptizer. I recall once seeing a smile light the faces of several more attentive congregants as they responded to the apparent irony of the final words of today's Gospel reading:
“His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached the good news to the people.
On the face of it, the reference to burning with unquenchable fire did not sound like good news.
But that was Luke’s word for it. Preaching good news was first of all Isaiah's way of talking about the coming of God in power, when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The Baptist made it clear that the coming of God in the person of Jesus would mean good news to those whose lives were “fruitful” in ways that show repentance … and bad news to those whose lives did not produce such fruit.
When questioned by the crowds as to what precisely “fruitful” living entailed, he replied concretely: don't cheat, don't extort, don't falsely accuse, be content with your wages, and share food and clothing.
And how is that good news? To paraphrase again: Under the reign of God, your life and what you do with it matter. Whatever your role—tax collector, soldier, butcher, baker—live it justly, and the world will be a better place and your destiny will be not the trash heap but the granary.
At the end of the day, the liturgy’s exhortation to rejoice has little to do with mood and much to do with waking up to the good news of the incarnation.
The way of life revealed in Jesus is both consoling and demanding. While most of us do not face exile or imprisonment, we do face the challenges of living justly and sharing with the needy—especially in the wake of an increasingly controverted welfare system.