“Joyful People”

2nd Sunday of Advent

December 10, 2000
Year C

First Reading: Baruch 5:1-9
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 126: 1-6
Second Reading: Philippians: 1:4-6, 8-11
Gospel: Luke 3:1-6

At the beginning of today’s Mass I noted that on this second Sunday of Advent the readings straddle the two different parts of the Advent season and do not so much focus on the coming of Jesus at the end of time but rather ask us to recognize Christ’s presence now. In a very subtle way the three readings are tied together through the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. What ties them together is the idea of rejoicing or joy—the same characteristic that identifies the presence of Jesus. Before examining that, let us take a look at some background for the first reading and the gospel.

Fr. Michael Himes, professor of theology at Boston College, has a comment about this particular part of Luke’s Gospel. He suggests that the first verse of this third chapter may be one the most important verses in all of the New Testament. This is because it stands in stark contrast with “once upon a time”—the phrase that begins most fairy tales. Because they portray timeless truths, fairy tales begin with “once upon a time”. This enables the reader or listener to imagine being in the midst of the story as it happens. Fr. Himes says, however, that the story we are about to hear in Luke’s Gospel is not about timeless truths. The story of Jesus really did happen. As we learn later, Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas are not people of good will, but they are included in here, so that we know the story of Jesus happened to particular people at a particular time in a particular place.

Baruch wrote long after the Babylonian captivity. His reflections take his readers back to a time when the Jewish people were taken captive and held hostage in a foreign land. He reminds them that as difficult as things were during the Babylonian captivity, God was still working in their lives. In fact, even during that captivity, God planned to return his people to Israel and restore Jerusalem to its former glory. Luke adopted the same language because he was trying to encourage the people of his time, who were also oppressed. In his Gospel Luke focused primarily on people who were poor and disenfranchised in Jewish society, assuring them that in their tribulation, God was still at work. They were not to give up hope because just as the hand of God brought the Israelites out of captivity and back to their homeland, so also God was going to bring them out of oppression and restore them as his sons and daughters.

Today’s readings are tied together in what Paul says about rejoicing: “every time I think about you I rejoice.” He then says that we, too, are to rejoice. However, I suspect that for most of us, the idea of joy or rejoicing is not common—not something we heard much growing up in the Catholic Church. The truth is that Catholics are not known for their joy--except when we are having parties, which we do very well!

When I was growing up, I went to Catholic school so I was well inundated with Catholic thought. It seemed that whenever we had reason to rejoice, there was a sin lurking in the corner. Either our parents or the nuns or the priests were there to tell us what that sin was. We could not get too happy and joyful because it was not very becoming of Christians. As a result I really thought Christians were supposed to be unhappy people, and that always left me baffled. By the way, this is not restricted to Catholics. For centuries Christianity in general has had a major problem with joy. I do not know exactly when or why the Christian Church so totally screwed up the gospel of Jesus Christ that joy became a forbidden commodity, something to be shunned. It does not seem to square with what we read in the scriptures, particularly with what the Gospels tell us about being a joyful people.

C.S. Lewis, the great Anglican writer, was not always a believer. In his teens and early twenties he rejected the faith he had received as a child because he could not quite figure out the message of Jesus. He was stumped by the fact that there were other stories of how gods had come into the world, had died and rose again. He saw them all as just mythological stories not based in reality. It was not until he had a confrontation with his close friend, the catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, also a well-known writer, that he understood. They were discussing the idea of mythology when Tolkien suggested that the difference between the mythology of the ancient gods and the mythology of Jesus is that Jesus’ mythology is true. He was reflecting the same thing we hear in Luke’s gospel, the same thing that Fr. Michael Himes tells us. It proved a profound insight for C.S. Lewis that eventually led to his recovering his faith. In one of his later books, The Problem of Pain,  he wrote the following: “I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to rejoice as much as by anything else.” What a powerful line.

Following the lead of Fr. Himes, I suggested a few weeks back that the origin of sin goes back to creation. At the end of creation, God looked at us human beings and said “You are very good.” That is God’s judgment on the whole of humanity. We are good. But we rejected that judgment, and that rejection is sin. We think we are not good but we can become good by our own devices. We say we are not like God but we can become like God if we try hard enough. We do not realize, or more accurately, we reject the fact that we already are like God because we were created in God’s image, and that God has judged us good. C.S. Lewis suggests that when we refuse to rejoice we are in fact committing sin. That sin is as significant as any other, because joy is the natural response of people who have been gifted by God. First of all we have been gifted with life. More importantly we have been gifted with love and with forgiveness.

Nietzsche has been wrongly condemned by most Christians because his experience led him to declare that God is dead. I say wrongly condemned, because I think many people owe Nietzsche both sympathy and gratitude. Besides declaring God to be dead, Nietzsche also wrote: “Christians don’t have a look about them of a redeemed people.” I cannot make any argument to counter that. Of all the Christians we know, how many of them are really joyful people? And if Christians do not have the look of a people who are already redeemed, then why should Nietzsche conclude anything other than that God is dead? I do not happen to agree with him but I understand how he reached that conclusion. He looked at people who had been touched by Jesus, redeemed by Jesus, but did not act or even look like it. They were not happy, joyful people. So what good could this redemption possibly be?

Of course, for us God is not dead. I want to share an experience I had, but I do so hesitatingly. First, let me affirm that I have a great deal of respect for Pope John Paul II. He is an old man who is much holier than I will ever be were I to live to be three times his age. Still, he is also is a rather unhappy man. I had the opportunity a couple years ago to be in Rome with a group of priests when we celebrated Mass with the Pope in his private chapel. During the Mass the Pope did not smile one single time. There was not even a moment of softness or gentleness on his face. This occurred long before his now nearly debilitating disease. As was his custom, he leaned on his cross and he looked most miserable throughout the entire Mass. Whenever he looked out at us, there was a frown on his face--and it was not because he was looking directly at me! He just had a constant look of misery on his face. After Mass I asked the priest who was our guide around Rome if the Pope was always like that and he said “Yes he is.” When I queried further, he said, “Well, the pope feels that he is bearing the burden of the whole world on his shoulders.” Fair enough, I thought. But if that is the case, I suggested that the pope should never ever be allowed to celebrate Mass in public again. A Mass without joy is simply not authentic Christian worship.

Some years ago I was with a priest friend of mine at Knotts Berry Farm. There used to be an attraction called “The Little Adobe Chapel”. It was located in an area separated from the amusement park rides. A very small Chapel, it probably seated 50 people. After walking into the chapel there was a picture of Jesus on the back wall. Doors would close over the picture and the lights would dim. When the doors opened again, the picture would light up, having been painted with phosphorous paint. Thisluminous painting depicted the story of the Transfiguration with the Gospel passage being narrated in the background. The problematic part of this presentation took place before the lights went out. A recording would play a description about Jesus written by a 12th century monk. The two things I found most offensive were, 1) when talking about Jesus the recording said “nobody ever saw him laugh” and 2) “but he was frequently known to cry.”  I thought to myself, “I need another redeemer”. I mean if Jesus is really that miserable that he never laughed and all he did was cry, he is not worth following anywhere, not even into eternity. There must be somebody out there who is a better redeemer than Jesus. Of course, Jesus was not all that bad, as we see in a number of gospel stories. And I am sure you already know, but what these incidents from my life betray is something profoundly amiss about Christianity.

At the beginning of the last century there was a very popular preacher by the name of Billy Sunday. In a sermon that he wrote in 1914 he spoke the following words: “The trouble with many people is that they have just enough religion to be miserable. If there is no joy in religion than you have got a leak in your religion.” Let me share another little vignette.

Every year the Archdiocese of Los Angeles hosts a Religious Education Congress at the Anaheim Convention Center. A number of years ago when our former Archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Manning was still alive I was at the closing Mass of the annual Congress. Picture it: 16,000 thousand people gathered in the arena of the Anaheim Convention Center. The music begins and 16,000 people start singing, rejoicing, putting everything they have into the music. They clap in rhythm with the musicians. The whole place comes alive. A couple hundred priests enter in the opening procession with the Cardinal. The entire arena is electrified. Then Cardinal Manning begins the Mass by saying (extremely monotonously) “Today, we are filled with joy…joy…joy,” with three words trailing each other into a near silence. I thought to myself, “Jesus, get me out of here.” How can one person, simply because he has a microphone, so completely decimate the exuberance of 16,000 people? Naturally, I stayed for the entire Mass. I guarantee you that it took an incredible amount of energy for the other people involved in the liturgy to try to recover what started out as a great celebration of the Spirit. Remember what Billy Sunday said: just enough religion to make you miserable.

After experiencing Mass with my Archbishop and Pope, I concluded that I would much rather be a sinner filled with joy, than be a saint filled with misery. Joy is a defining characteristic of a person who has been touched by Jesus. We simply are not meant to be miserable people. For far too long the Christian Church has been fixated on sin. The reality is that there is much evil in our world and we are sometimes going to be oppressed and overcome by forces that are beyond our control. What the gospel of Luke is trying to tell us is that in those times we should celebrate the joy of God’s work in our lives recalling that God has the power to bring us health.

The people Luke mentions at the beginning of this chapter are people who thought that they could control the forces of the world. They thought they were the ones to determine right and wrong, that they could control the course of the people of Israel. In fact, God was in control, and as a result, God confounded all their activities. They were about to kill John the Baptist because he represented a threat to them. Then they were going to kill Jesus because he represented a threat to them. But John became even more revered as a great prophet, and God raised Jesus from the dead. They lose. God’s hand was truly at work.

Even in the darkest moments of our lives, we have reason to rejoice. Dostoyevsky’s most famous novel is probably
The Brothers Karamazov. In that book he writes: “Cana of Galilee, ah that sweet miracle. It was not men’s grief but their joy that Christ visited. He worked certain miracles to help men’s lives.”  Dostoyevsky is on target in what he writes about Cana: Christ comes to join in the celebration--a feast of joy. And what does he do? He finds people who are already drunk, having run out of wine, and he makes more wine so they can get even drunker than they already are. I am not suggesting that we need to get drunk in order to celebrate our joy in Christ. What I am trying to suggest is that everything about the wedding at Cana is a matter of joy and bounty. It is a matter of celebration, of rejoicing.

Where did we get the idea that the Christian religion is supposed to be miserable, and that we are supposed to be unhappy? I think part of it goes back to the original idea of rejecting God’s judgment of our goodness. Two Sundays ago, the feast of Christ the King, I talked about reality. I suggested that reality, much like beauty, is not in the eye of the beholder. Rather, reality is in the eye of the creator. We can only see what is real when we see it through the eyes of God. If God’s judgment on the human race is that we are good, then until we see each other as good, we cannot see reality. In fact there is no such thing as a bad person: there are only good people who do bad things. And we are among those people. Even so we have been forgiven by God. We have already been redeemed, and God continues to forgive us each time we do something wrong.

Father Himes also leads a discussion on reconciliation that fits into this picture. He talks about the sacrament as not being about how bad we are. When we go to confession and tell the priest our sins, it is not about how bad we are or what wrong we have done. Rather it is about God’s love. That is the focus. That is what we should be celebrating, God’s love. We should rejoice that even though we have committed sin, God still judges us good and forgives us.

I might also suggest that tied into all of this is the notion of universal salvation. A number of people have questioned me, as they struggle to come to terms with what it means. What exactly is universal salvation? Because God has judged us good once, he cannot undo that judgment. Whatever we do, we are still good people and we are loved and forgiven by God. Everyone is loved and forgiven, and is going to go to heaven--even those who sometimes do bad things.

We come finally to a quote from William Blake: “Arise and drink your bliss for all that lives is holy.” We live; we are holy. We are not perfect; we are sinners. But we are holy. And not just we, but all people are holy. Imagine for just a moment what the world would be like if, in fact we began to look at one another the way that God looks at us. Imagine seeing holiness even in the midst of sin. Imagine seeing goodness even in the midst of evil. How different would our world be, and how much joy would we likely feel and experience and share with one another, if what we saw was goodness and holiness? The writers I have quoted, all from the last century, are not unique. Everything that they have written is testified to in the Scriptures themselves. These writers have understood the testimony of the Gospels, and they have given us profound insight into those Gospels. If we can begin to understand their insight, then we also might be able embrace the truth of the Good News. That truth proclaims that we are all good. Knowing that, we indeed have reason to rejoice.