Reference: Philippians 4:4-7
The road from repentance to rejoicing must be a difficult one, because so many people seem to get lost along the way. Last week’s post stressed that repentance is an essential and important step, without which the message of Christianity is basically meaningless. But to be mired in repentance, the disturbing but accurate portrait of myself in the inner mirror, is a terrible place to park. There may be some grim satisfaction in rooting around until all the ugly parts of my soul are exposed for what they are, but it isn’t at all a goal to arrive at, just a crucial one to pass through.
Presumably already, although only one generation into Christianity, in the year 61, people were not getting the concept. St. Paul has to tell the Philippians multiple times to rejoice. When you have to tell people that, it is a sign of a need to cheer up. Now, two millennia into Christian history, the message seems at least as needed. If the proverbial “man on the street” were to be asked to characterize Christians, it is unlikely that “rejoicing” would be a word used much.
It isn’t the fault of Jesus. When he sets out his ethics, the way we should live as his followers, he does not thunder commandments and rules, but rather phrases it as “blessed are you if you can do this.” And he ends it with “rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:3-12), or even, as Luke records it, “rejoice and leap for joy” (Luke 6:23). The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has Jesus telling you, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad.” Further, Jesus is criticized because John the Baptist’s disciples, as well as the Pharisees, “often fast and pray,” “but yours go on eating and drinking.” This self-righteous accusation, one of many recorded in the Gospels by the enemies of Jesus, and in history ever since by those proclaiming they are the followers of Jesus, is no doubt put forth with the expectation of a guilty repentant response; “I’m so sorry, I’ll have a word with the guys, we will try harder to do better.” Instead, Jesus answers, “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” (Luke 5:33-34). Clearly, there is a big celebration going on. Anyone with a long face doesn’t get it.
Perhaps the somber churchy people of today would justify their gloomy mood by asserting that the bridegroom is no longer with us, he has left to go live in a better neighborhood far from here. Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer who is the spiritual Father to many Protestant churches, makes that exact point. Christ has gone to heaven, he cannot be in two places at once, he is absent from our contemporary world. It is time, therefore, to fast and mourn the loss. Yet we catholic Christians enjoy a wider view of Jesus’ ability to be ubiquitous, and celebrate his real presence among us. It is, in fact, the center of Christian focus, the every-Sunday feast where we enjoy the immediacy and efficacy of that presence. So the bridegroom is still around, the gloom is quite inappropriate.
Yet the black-robed Zwingli and his ilk seem to set the public tone for the popular image of Christianity. For good reason, as even among those who should know better, the viewpoint of the Pharisees has heavily infiltrated into the churches over the centuries. Church became the place of “no,” the rules forbidding you from doing most everything you wanted to do, the pall of judgement and condemnation hanging heavily upon you.
And the consequences of our surrender to the party of the Pharisees weigh upon us still. It is not often these days that we are accused of celebrating too much as Christians, and I do not recall ever anyone commenting on our having “exceeding joy.” Rarely is it noted that we have even a smidgen of joy. Rejoicing? That’s done elsewhere, not in church.
In this season, many around us do wish us “happy holidays.” It helps in understanding the problem, because what exactly does that mean? If it is not specifically the Christ-event, Emmanuel, God with us (as in the bridegroom still and always with us), what should cause us to be happy? The winter solstice, which is what is left without the Christ Mass, is cold, dark and snowy. It is for good reason that depression and feelings of loneliness and despair peak at this time. The contrast between reality and the glowing tinsel attempts at portraying the season as one of enjoying a close extended family, a showering of meaningful gifts and a profound message in the holidays makes it an especially difficult time for many.
St. Paul’s point is not to rejoice in emptiness, in “happy holidays.” His point is to rejoice in what the Philippians, and we, have been given. The Lord is at hand, he says. The bridegroom is with us, in the thanksgiving, as it is translated. But the word he uses in the original Greek, is our word “eucharist.” The attempt at the mindless rejoicing of “happy hollidays” doesn’t work. To rejoice in the celebration of Eucharist, the bridegroom present among us, is solid reason to be happy, the grace and love of God even for you and I.
The theologian Alexander Schmemann comments that the Church lost the world when she lost her joy. And the joy went away when people no longer encountered Jesus, with his grace and love, among the community of Christians, when the preachers told them they needed to achieve their own salvation, when the Church became about sorting out who is naughty and who is nice.
Repent? Absolutely, Advent is designed for that. Let’s get all the garbage in my soul out of the way. Then I can see clearly. The Lord is at hand, the Thanksgiving is right in front of me. As the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker puts it; “The only thought in the mind of a faithful communicant is, ‘My God, thou art true, my soul, thou art happy.”