Advent 3C

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 4:4-7

We heard those words a few minutes ago, but they bear hearing again.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice.”

With the news that came on Friday, it’s hard to Rejoice.  26 innocents were killed at that school, including the unimaginable heartache that accompanies the deaths of 20 little children.  That would never be easy, but it seems somehow especially harsh here in the final days before Christmas.

How are we to prepare our hearts for Christ in our midst, when they are already so heavy with this?

How are we to Rejoice in the midst of such sadness and despair?

"John the Baptist" by Auguste Rodin

The lessons we read today seem just as out of balance as the world into which they’ve been read.  Earlier this week, before this tragedy shaped my thinking, while I was reading these lessons and beginning to imagine how I would preach, I kept laughing to myself as I hummed, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…”  But not if John the Baptist has anything to say about it!

Talk of “broods of vipers” and “the wrath to come”, don’t exactly engender the Christmas spirit.

But neither do school shootings.

The truth of the matter is, every day, for someone, is the best day there ever was.  Every day someone gets engaged, or has a baby, or falls in love, or gets a better job...  Every day something more wonderful happens.

And every day is a tragedy for someone: a loved one dies, a heart is broken, or a terrifying diagnosis is given...  Every day someone despairs.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas, or Hanukkah, or any other day of the year.  Every day is a triumph and every day brings tragedy.  And sometimes life gets in the way of the Rejoicing.

It’s in that spirit that many churches, in recent years, have begun offering what they call “Blue Christmas” services - services of prayer and healing for the many people for whom this isn’t “the most wonderful time of the year”.  For many people, the Rejoicing all throughout the wider culture at this time of year, rings hollow.  And in the face of “Joy to the World” everywhere one turns, grief and sadness can seem to cut all the deeper.  Pain can seem all the more isolating.

So there are two things we would be wise to remember this holiday season: First, no matter how spirited our joyful singing may be, it always rings out in the midst of someone’s despair.  This year we’re experiencing that truth on a national level.  This year we know that someone’s celebration will be muted at best, but more likely it will be heart wrenching.  Some children will be missing from the Christmas pageants at their churches.  Some presents under some trees will go unopened.  That’s always true, but this year we see it a little more clearly.

But the other thing we would be wise to remember this holiday season is that, no matter how deep our despair, no matter how numbing our grief, no matter how isolated we feel in whatever sadnesses we face - in the midst of all of that, there still is joy.

Several years ago, Fred Rogers, of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame, was giving parents advice on how to help their children cope with disasters.  He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster’, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice.”

We can be the helpers.  We can make our gentleness known to everyone.

No matter how real the pain is that we know to be true in the world, even still there is Christ.  There is hope and there is love.  If only we can train ourselves to see it.

In the Order for Compline, the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer for use at bedtime, each night we recite the Song of Simeon.  It says: “Lord, you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised.  For these eyes of mine have seen the savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see.”

We say this each night, at the close of each day, because every day we can see the savior.  Advent is about taking the time to prepare our hearts for that reality.  It’s about taking the time to train ourselves to see the savior that lives among us.

On days of tragedy - and on days of blessing - we see the savior: the one who was born in a miracle, and the one who died in the arms of tragedy.  They’re all a part of the life of Christ.  They’re both - the tragedy and the miracle - a part of our salvation.  In the pain and in the joy, there is blessing.  It’s all a part of the season for Rejoicing.

John the Baptist, as a part of this lesson that seems so decidedly out of sorts from the holiday spirit we’re trying to prepare, answers the people time and again when they ask him, “What, then, should we do?”

In times like these, we should follow the advice of Mister Rogers and look for the helpers.  The comfort they offer is just as real as whatever pain the other one also caused.

What, then, should we do?

In times like these, we should live all the more as the people we were baptized to be:
people who continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers;
people who persevere in resisting evil, and who, when we do sin, repent and return to the Lord;
people who, even in the face of tragedy, proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;
people who seek and serve Christ in all persons, and who love our neighbors as ourselves;
and people who, even when Rejoicing seems most foreign, strive all the more for justice and peace among all people, and who, even in the face of great tragedy, insist on respecting the dignity of every human being.

What, then, should we do?

In times like these, we should look for Christ.  Amen.


Jon, What beautiful advice. Thank you for offering this most needed and comforting view.
Thanks for reading, Katherine :) And prayers for all who suffer loss...