Sunday, 12 December 2010

Gaudete Sunday Year A

The entrance antiphon from Phil 4:4 says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!! The Lord is near”. But it is the Latin “Gaudete semper in Domino” that gives us Gaudete Sunday—a Sunday marked with joy because the Lord is near. Unfortunately, it is at best a misplaced Sunday or at worst, it is quite meaningless.

Why? It is a misplaced Sunday because Christmas began right after Deepavali. If you like, it should have been placed at the First Sunday of Advent. Otherwise, it is meaningless because the word “Gaudete” is not a description but rather a prescription for Sunday meaning we are commanded to celebrate today with joy. But what does it mean to break into a joyful celebration when all the while we have been celebrating already?

This shows that we are celebrating two Christmases—maybe two understanding of Christmas. One Christmas begins even as before the dying amber of “diya” lamps of Deepavali are extinguished. We know this Christmas very well. In fact, a sight to behold is Orchard Road in Singapore. I do not believe I am promoting Singapore—but it is true that it is shimmeringly sparklingly at night. Our closest version of Orchard Road, which is really an insulting comparison, is Jalan Bukit Bintang. There you may find the masseurs probably all lined and dressed up like Santa’s little elves trying to lure you in for a relaxing reward of reflexology. And please, I am not promoting the masseurs.

The point is, this Christmas supposedly can begin anytime before—like in the Philippines, I am told that it begins as soon the month ends with a “-ber”—like September. But never mind when it begins, the important thing is that it officially ends on 25th December. 26th feels old, used and ready to be discarded.

The second Christmas is where “Gaudete” makes sense. It is a Christmas that begins with the Vigil of the 24th and will last until Epiphany.1 The command to rejoice is set within a penitential period of preparing for the Lord’s arrival. The first reading speaks of joy at the nearness of the Lord. In fact, when God is near, we dare to rejoice. We are enboldened by God’s closeness. However, the quality of this joy is not familiar to us. As we are unable to live in the suspense of God’s coming, we have turned to manufacturing our own joy. Today, everything we need for “successful” living or “meaningful” existence is determined by the criterion of instant fulfilment. It explains our constant impatience with anything that does not deliver the result here and now: “I have to have it and I mean now”.2

It is easy to dismiss this impatience to be the result of the need for instant gratification until we remember that the People of Israel were so anxious at the waiting for Moses to return from Sinai that they fashioned a calf of molten gold to dance around in the belief that that experience would be as close as it can get to the true worship of God. We often mistake manufactured joy or happiness to be the expression of God’s nearness. The contrary is true. Our joy does not mean that God is near. Ask someone who is drunk or someone who tries to make himself happy through sex, drugs or drinks, if God is near.

So, the joy of Gaudete Sunday is different. The two readings and the gospel give us signs of how different joy is. The first reading speaks in terms of a barren wilderness being transformed into a oasis of abundance and links it to the second reading where St James speaks of the farmer’s patience in waiting for the rain to come and for the harvest to yield its plentiful produce. A key word to appreciating “joy” is the word patience because the Gospel leads us not into an oasis or a farm but into the life of this man named John the Baptist. Imagine him driven by the passion of God as he preaches penitence and harkens us to holiness, all in preparation for the Messiah’s coming. But now, he is in prison and very soon his life will come to a violent end. He hears of his cousin’s exploits and he is filled with doubt with regard to his credentials. Jesus eats with sinners, drunkards, prostitutes and from the sound of it, it does not seem like Jesus is the Messiah. And worse, Jesus’ answer is not in the affirmative. Instead of “I am the Messiah”, he directs John’s disciples to the first reading: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy”. And Jesus ends with “Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me”.

The point here is not the “conversation” between the cousins via intermediaries. Faced with knowing that he would never be able to continue his mission or see its ending; confronted with the imminent knowledge of losing his life, surrounded by a situation that could have defeated even the best of us3; the answer of Jesus provided one single spark of joy that broke through the walls of John’s prison and fears. John’s joy is knowing that his life has not been in vain.

A Life lived in vain. This is a question many of us have to contend with. Is it a wonder why more people commit suicide in a season of manufactured joy; a season where we are expected to feel happy when the prevailing question in our mind is simply this: “is this all there is to it”? Have I wasted my life doing what I have been trying to do?

Gaudete teaches us patience in our “lacrimarum valle”—our valley of tears. True joy or happiness cannot be manufactured but is a gift from having lived faithfully for Christ believing that though our lives may experience the long dry desert of waiting patiently for an answer, the answer has already been given – Christ is the answer. He is the joy and hope of all ages. He gives us this assurance that our lives will never be in vain, if we are faithful like John the Baptist was. Christ is the answer to those who, despite all evidence to the contrary, are faithfully living as husband or wife, parents to forgetful children, children burdened by the weight of caring for an ailing parents, siblings who care for disabled sibling, families who continue believing even though debilitated or discouraged by deaths, civil servants who despite the stench corruption around them, strive to provide excellent service, youth who blocked by the glass ceilings of colour or creed, labour on valiantly—Gaudete Sunday is yours. Your life can never be in vain because Christ is near.

In conclusion, I started with the two Christmases we have. We straddle them both because we do not live in a ghetto or a theocratic state which dictates only one possible way of celebrating Christmas. Some of us have to entertain clients, or have obligations to fulfil like a chain of parties to attend leading right up to Christmas. All the festivities before Christmas might be necessary but remember4 not allow this Christmas of false happiness and joy to crowd out the real Christmas we will celebrate. Do not lose faith in Christ, who is our hope and joy even in the midst of our worst troubles. Otherwise, our deserts will remain barren wastelands, the deaf will remain dumb, the blind will remain sightless. That would truly be a life lived in vain.
[1] Epiphany is 12 days after Christmas and should fall on 6th Jan. It is the basis for the Christmas carol “On the first day of Christmas…”. In countries where Epiphany is shifted to Sunday, it will fall between 2nd and 8th January.

[2] Instant coffee, instant insurance claim, instant food, instant baby, instant perfect marriage, etc.

[3] This is so familiar to us. We know that we are surrounded by such a situation when the newspapers are crowing the numbers that we have successfully combated corruption and that our international ranking has credibly shot up. The truth is many of us have been defeated in our hope.

[4] Manufactured joy can only do so much. I say this because I share the suffer the same temptation you do. My idea of a manufactured joy is to go out and blow whatever resources I have on something that I do not need. It is a “joy and happiness” to buy what I do not need. But how long before I need another dose of happiness?