'Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.
The Lord is near.' Philippians 4:4-5
‘Rejoice in the Lord’ – this is an invitation to see and receive what happens for us and for all people in the nativity of the Lord Jesus: the Lord is at hand, God is with us, among us, born as one of us. Rejoice. I hope that each of us is able to look forward to occasions of rejoicing as we celebrate the birth of the Saviour. If we have picked up a newspaper or turned on the news, than we have been told that Christmas is being cancelled or locked down. Perhaps we have said these things ourselves, or felt sad or angry because something precious is being taken from us. Indeed, it would be wrong to deny that many things which bring happiness are threatened again this year. We are not sure if it will be possible to be together with family or friends, or able to do the things we want to do. Some of us will know people who are unwell or frightened, others who are mourning loved ones. Others have lost jobs or face big financial challenges. Perhaps this is all the more difficult because we hoped that things would be different. Disappointed hope is especially hard to bear.
How can we hear the invitation to 'Rejoice'? It is especially important to see that the rejoicing to which St Paul invites us does not need to wait until everything is just right. He is probably writing to the Church in Philippi from prison in Rome. The darkness is real, threatening, but the light is brighter, more powerful. The circumstances which surround the birth which is the source of our rejoicing teach us to expect it to be like this. The nativity which is the source of our rejoicing comes in the midst of disappointment, loss, corruption, even murder. Ceasar decreed that all the Roman world would be taxed. This meant a trip of 90 miles, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in the deep of winter. No longer would St Joseph and the Mother of our Lord be able to look forward to a birth in their home town, surrounded by people they knew. In the decree from Caesar, we see the world of political power, the world of taxes, restrictions, and regulations. Disappointment. Of course, there was no room at the inn. Maybe the couple endured this with patience, but it looks like more disappointment. Things only get worse. Sometime after the birth, the Holy family need to flee Bethlehem for Egypt. The wicked king Herod was frightened by the prophecy that a baby born in Bethlehem will be the new king. In his mad power-lust he murders the youngest babies in Bethlehem. These trials and horrors are not just details of the plot, as if we could have a different version of the same Christmas story without all these problems. The rejoicing which the birth of the Christ-child brings is always given in the midst of problems or trials which threaten to take that rejoicing away.
To rejoice in the Lord is to recognize that God who comes to us, God born among us, is the fountain and source of all many reasons for rejoicing that make life worth living. C S Lewis described the pleasures of this life as ‘shafts of the glory’ that strike us. The good pleasures, the little happinesses which give us joy, are shafts of glory which we feel and experience. All the good things which we look forward to at Christmas are in some way encounters with divine goodness, divine beauty, divine truth. C S Lewis calls these moments of pleasure ‘channels of adoration’:
'It’s not just that we can give thanks, looking back or looking forward, for some time to rest, for the blessing of seeing people we love, for the joy of worship, for all the little things we enjoy. Yes, we can give thanks or we can look forward. But it’s more than that.'
In the midst of the pleasure, the joy, we know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. 'There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards’. To experience these little happinesses is in itself to adore, in these pleasures we rejoice in the Lord, the Lord is at hand, he is here in these gifts of grace.
But we are not yet ready to rejoice, not yet. In one sense, we are never quite ready for this rejoicing, at least without the right preparation. This is why our Gospel for today (John 1:19-28) does not invite us to draw near to Bethlehem. Before we rejoice in the Lord we need to distinguish between the Lord and those things which point to Him. There is much indeed which we could say about the encounter between John the Baptist and the Pharisees. We could consider how Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in him, how he is both in the spirit of Elijah and not Elijah. But briefly, let us consider that way he warns us not to mix up the sign for the reality. He points to the Messiah, he is not the Messiah. John the Baptist is a voice, a messenger, but he is not by himself the message. We are the kind of people who are always on the look-out for a Messiah. We want celebrities or leaders who will give us what we want and what we need. Of course, we need people to inspire us, leaders to guide us, yes. But the encounter between the Baptist and the Pharisees teach us how important it is not to mix up the servant from the Messiah. Part of the reason our politicians disappoint us so much, or our sport’s stars, or celebrities, is that we expect them to give us things which they cannot give. Politicians serve the justice that Christ fulfills in himself, but they cannot capture it. Scientists and doctors serve health and well-being, but they cannot give us what the Messiah brings, and they cannot protect us from death or illness.
In time with family in friends, we will live in these channels of adoration, and yet the joys of family life are not our destination, they are shafts of glory, but we are met for a communion and union which family cannot give. We are meant for divine fire, divine life in us. When we know this, we don’t loose the joys of family or the little happinesses, we receive them in a way that is most wholesome, most full of rejoicing. We need to meet the Baptist first, to help us see the danger of looking for the wrong saviour, to prepare to receive the joy which gives meaning to all our other joys. Secondly, and perhaps the harder message: If what delights us are to be channels of adoration, what we love needs to be sorted out. 'Make straight the way for the Lord.' (John 1:23). John offers a baptism of repentance. John’s baptism is like a confession, it means that we turn away from what is un-true, not-good, not beautiful in us, toward the one who is the source of our rejoicing. Before good things of this life can be channels of adoration, before we rejoice in the Lord, we first need to be willing to be displeasing to ourselves.
The French nun “Thérèse (of Lisieux) describes what it means to make straight the way of the Lord in a simple way. She told her sister, Celine, "If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be a pleasant place of shelter for Jesus." Some people cannot accept this, part of us cannot accept this. If we are corrected or rebuked our pride stirs in us – 'who are you to tell me that I am wrong', or whatever form it takes. Instead, "If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be a pleasant place of shelter for Jesus." John the Baptist describes Christ as the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sins of the world. We don’t have to be dishonest without ourselves. God does not just reveal our faults, reveal our unlove, he gives us a solution. He comes as medicine and an answer. We can have the courage to be displeasing to ourselves. We are not yet ready for the celebration. In these last days of Advent, let us root out whatever in us makes our hearts or our lives too full for the infant King. Let us root out whatever is crooked, whatever would make the home of our hearts displeasing to the God of goodness, wisdom and love. It is always the right time to rejoice in the Lord. We find these channels of adoration, little happinesses which reveal a greater happiness for which we are intended and which we enjoy, we find this rejoicing amid trials and struggles. The Lord is at hand. Today he comes in his holy word to call us to rejoicing. He comes in the blesses sacrament to meet us, to feed us, to give us strength for the next steps of the journey. 'Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.' Amen (Fr George Westhaver).