I could not make sense of the commentator’s words.
“Good morning! Welcome to our celebration of the Third Sunday of Advent, Rejoice Sunday. We will light a pink candle on our wreath today to symbolize this moment of expectant joy.”
It was December 16, 2012, and only 48 hours earlier, 26 innocent children and adults had been massacred at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The nation was numb. We were in shock. How could we rejoice?
I listened half-attentively to Zephaniah’s cry, “Be glad and exult with all your heart” (3:14), and to Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (4:4). I heard the crowds and the tax collectors ask John the Baptist, “What then should we do” to prepare the way for the Lord? (Lk 3:10). And I asked myself, what should we do? What can any of us do in an environment of such heart-chilling tragedy?
The morning paper had quoted someone as saying that Christmas would be canceled in several places this year. There was no room for joy.
After church, I drove to a mall where I had been hired to play Christmas music on my harp to cheer holiday shoppers. The sky was gray and the air damp from the previous night’s rain. I arrived at the mall to discover that the outdoor public-address system was on and that my music would be competing with strident recorded sound. I set up my harp and bench and began to play: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”; “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”; “Still, Still, Still”; and “Lovely Is the Dark Blue Sky.”
And then it happened. I looked up to find standing in front of me a father holding two youngsters bundled in mittens and scarves. “Could you play ‘Silent Night’ for us?” he asked. I did. He said, “Thank you so much,” and dre his little ones closer.
Two lively teenaged girls with body piercings and spiky hair stopped and stayed for a while. “That is so beautiful,” one said. A young man walked by, then turned around and came back to listen. “That’s heavy,” he whispered.
The unbelievable, impossible magic continued. More parents. More mittened children held close. I lost count of how many times I was asked to play “Silent Night.” Time stopped. I did not want to. My assigned hour passed, but I never noticed.
Driving home, I thought back to the Scriptures I’d heard that morning. When the crowds and tax collectors asked John the Baptist what they should do to prepare the way for Jesus, he did not ask them to perform miracles or to stop all the violence on the earth. He told them simply to do what they already did but with generosity and integrity; to do what they already did but in a way that created comfort, healing, justice, and even joy.
What could I do in the face of the violence of the previous days? Perhaps not much, but I could play my harp and play it in a way that was generous, offered healing, and perhaps—just perhaps—shared a bit of comfort and joy with those who needed it most. Here we are again: Rejoice Sunday. Once more we await the Lord’s coming. Isaiah tells us that God is coming to save, that there will be a blossoming forth in what was once a desert wasteland, and that sorrow and lament will end, replaced by everlasting joy.
The Letter of James reminds us that we must be patient and vigilant in awaiting this joy, like the farmer awaiting the rain. Finally, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus commands, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (11:4-5).
It is faith that enables us to see Jesus now in our midst, being born in us anew in this Advent-Christmas season. It is a patient faith that trusts that the Lord will bring healing to sorrowing souls, a parched earth, and nations and hearts still divided and at war. And it is a courageous faith that understands that each one of us can, and must, contribute to preparing the way for the Lord on earth.
Whether it is in sharing our material resources, or being financially just and honest as John exhorts the crowds and the tax collectors, or whether it is in playing a harp, helping a child, visiting someone who is lonely, serving in a soup kitchen, taking time to write letters to elected representatives, or simply greeting a weary cashier at the mall with a smile, there is something each one of us can do to prepare the way of the Lord. We each can create and share joy where joy is sorely needed.
With faith, there is hope, and hope can be either passive or active. If my hope this Rejoice Sunday is passive—the inclinations of my heart merely wishful—I can complain that it is not yet possible to be joyful. What I hope for is not happening. This year, the world is no better than it was last year.
But if my hope is active, if I work in even the smallest of ways to bring about what I hope for, my prayer becomes more than wishful thinking. It becomes a paving stone on the highway for our God. And that is cause for joy.
In this new Advent-Christmas season of giving, let us as people of patient and courageous faith and active hope not simply wait for joy to happen but make it happen and give it freely. We await our Lord who is already here. In us. Let us create joy, bring joy, and be joy for others now and throughout the coming year.