These are dark days. I don’t mean in the north of Scotland in the middle of December. I mean in the world and for the world. It is in a dark place. And it’s right, in Advent, to think of the world, because it’s to the world Christ comes. I hardly need to repeat the headlines. There’s our relentless pandemic. There are wars and rumours of war, even on the eastern end of Europe. There’s more violence everywhere. Social problems are not lessening. Few people are optimistic about the economy. What of migrants and refugees? And the climate? And as Christians we have our own instincts and spiritual senses. There are deeper currents, and we may well feel uneasy about them. The very idea of assisted suicide, if you couple it with abortion and declining birth-rate at the other end of life, suggests a society that has lost its broader horizons, that is recoiling in the face of life and curling in upon itself. It can’t be by chance that when contemporary literature imagines the future, it is almost always in dark terms; theatre and cinema too for all I know.
Today, like a shock; today, called Gaudete Sunday – rejoice – after the first Latin word of the Introit; today is telling us: Be joyful. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.” That’s drawn from St Paul and our 2nd reading. And today isn’t putting this forward as a tentative suggestion, or a nice pious idea, or a kind of pat on the back, saying, Cheer up, old girl. It’s a command, an imperative. “Rejoice”. In today’s Collect, we pray to reach “the joys of so great a salvation”. “Shout for joy, daughter of Zion,” says the prophet Zephaniah. If Aberdeen scores a goal at Pittodrie, I can hear the shout in my house. “Shout for joy!” Zephaniah was saying this when Jerusalem was not in a happy place. On we go: the Psalm (Isaiah actually): “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Even the Baptist, in the Gospel, though he mentions fire and judgment and the fate of straw is actually proclaiming joy. “Someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I am.” I was speaking with someone recently widowed, left in her thirties with children to praise. And she was asking herself, “where am I in all of this? What about me?” And then she pointed upwards – to heaven and her deceased husband – and then to her little boy in front of her. And she said, “that’s where I am.” There’s my “me”, there’s my life, there’s my joy.
This Sunday is bidding us go on a hunt for joy, the joy humanity has lost through sin. What is it? Where do we find it? Where are these wells of salvation? In the spirit of synodality, wouldn’t it be good to sit down and talk about this together? We can’t live without at least some joy. Isn’t joy to be found in our relationships? I think it is often nearer at hand, hidden in smaller things or deep within us like music playing in the background on our inner ear. In today’s Gospel, the crowds and the tax-collectors and the soldiers all ask John, “What should we do?” And his answers are very matter of fact. He doesn’t say, “Change your job, or emigrate, or come out with me into the desert.” He says, get your relationships right. Don’t be selfish, share your surplus with others. If you’re a tax-collector, stick to the rate. If you’re in the military, don’t abuse your power; be content with your pay. John was the last of the prophets, the voice to prepare for the Word. And he doesn’t call for drastic things. He says: get your relationships right. This is the ground from which joy springs. Christian tradition has always linked joy with love. It’s so simple. And love means faithful, just, right, respectful, empathetic relationships.
Joy is being with those you love. Joy is knowing you are loved. How much we can put up with when we know we are. Joy is more than enjoyment; it’s more than pleasure. We can get caught up in “false joys”, in the empty promises of Satan we renounce at our baptism. And the world and the flesh are always advertising these: do your own thing, get more money, have a good time. It’s rather like eating a meringue; it can be lovely in the mouth, but it doesn’t have much staying power in the stomach.
And so like John the Baptist we’ve come to the threshold of biblical and Christian joy, the joy of the Gospel as Pope Francis calls it, the joy that’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit, the joy that’s linked to the theological virtue of hope. It’s a joy in someone outside us and greater than us. It’s objective. It’s certain. It’s like a rock. “Rejoice in the Lord!”, says St Paul. He is near. “The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst”. “Do not let your hands fall limp.” Dance and shout. Why? Because the Lord is dancing with shouts of joy over you. In other words, we are loved. We are meant. We are wanted. There’s a presence and a providence and a power in us and among us. That widow pointed with a finger to God and pointed to her little boy. In the context of Advent, John the Baptist points with the finger of his words to the little boy who will be born in Bethlehem. Where is joy? It lies in the great truths and promises of our faith. It’s found in everything that lies ahead of us in the Church’s year: in the Incarnation, the Birth, the Gospel words, the Cross and Resurrection, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the presence in the Blessed Sacrament, the forgiveness of sins and hope of eternal life. All these things are remedies for our endemic sadness. All these things, if we enter into them, bring us joy. There are blocks on our side, I know, but if we let life teach and purify us, we’ll see that these are being eroded over time. We are being simplified and opened to the essential.
So here’s the thought for today: let’s ask ourselves where we find joy, or why we don’t, what it is/ And who it is that shines in the dark for us.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 12th December 2021