I Say Rejoice – A Homily for Advent 3

“Pay attention to the open sky / You never know what will be coming down.” –– Jackson Browne

Rejoice in the Lord always. Let me say it again: Rejoice! . . . The Lord is near. . . And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 –– Philippians 4:4-7

So said St. Paul 2000 years ago, and we have heard him say it again today: Rejoice!And because these words became the traditional opening chant in the medieval mass on the Third Sunday of Advent, this day became known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for “rejoice.”

Rejoice is one of the most important words in the Bible. It’s full of electricity, meant to jolt you out of sleep and despair. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” said the prophet Zephaniah. “God will rejoice over you with gladness…God will dance with shouts of joy for you.”

God will dance! In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, the word for rejoice is also the word for dance. An old Jewish Midrash takes great delight in this double meaning:

 In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will lead the chorus of the righteous…and they will dance around Him…and point to Him…saying, “This is God, our God forever and ever; God will lead us…with youthfulness, with liveliness.”

So on Rejoice Sunday, as we celebrate the dancing God, who’s this wild man of the desert crashing our party, calling us snakes and shouting about wrath? Who let him in?

You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? Do you really think you are going to escape from the mess you’ve made of this world? Is that what you think? Don’t tell me about your spiritual heritage. That’s not going to save you! You’ve got to show you mean business. You’ve got to turn yourselves around and get right with God. You say you’re Abraham’s children. Well, God doesn’t care a fig about that. You say you go to church. So what?

Are you bearing any fruit? I don’t see it. Your hearts are nothing but dead trees. Where’s the fruit? Where’s the juice? You know what happens to dead trees? They get cut down, leaving nothing but stumps.

Look, I’m baptizing with water the ones who really want to change. But I tell you, there’s someone coming after me who’s a lot more powerful than I am – I’m not even fit to tie his shoes. And he’s not going to be using any water to baptize you. He’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit – and with fire.

The winnowing fork is already in his hand. He’s clearing the threshing floor and gathering the wheat into the barn. But the chaff? Oh, the chaff he is going to burn in a fire that will never go out.”

So people, listen up. It’s time to get ready.
Stay awake. Keep watch. Change your lives.

Such an intrusion, such a message, and such a messenger, seem shockingly out of place on Rejoice Sunday. Thank God no wild prophets have wandered into our assembly today. But you never know!

About 25 years ago, a pastor in California asked me if I would make a surprise Advent appearance at his church as John the Baptist. No one else in his congregation knew this was going to happen, not even the ushers, who looked at me nervously when I entered the church in bare feet and a tattered old robe. At the moment when the gospel was to be read, I came up the aisle, looking people in the eyes as I delivered my fiery message. Then, after one last warning to stay awake and keep watch, I slipped out the door and disappeared.

This bit of guerilla liturgy got mixed reviews from the congregation, as you might imagine. But if the Bible is a living word, it doesn’t just tell stories about people in the past. It confronts and challenges us in the present as well, as the biblical truths retell themselves in our own stories.

Be that as it may, what are we to make of the Baptist’s unsettling message? Perhaps his most troubling phrase is “the wrath to come.” It conjures up all those abusive old images of an angry, judgmental and vindictive god, images which have done a lot of harm over the centuries, even though Jesus made it pretty clear that the heart of the law is mercy, and the end of all our stories is the victory of Love.

So what is the “wrath to come”? I believe it is really something of our own devising. If we break the laws of the universe, we will find ourselves contradicted by a reality more true and lasting than the constructions of our own self-will. If we engage in destructive behaviors, those chickens will come home to roost. Or as C. S. Lewis put it, “We are not punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins.”

We all experience this kind of blowback on the level of personal behavior, whenever we reap what we have sown. But it is true on a collective level as well. The rapid acceleration of climate change makes this abundantly clear. For decades we humans have been either unwilling or unable to change our ways, and now the consequent “wrath” is getting too big to ignore––although some still try!

A recent cartoon depicting a climate change denier puts this perfectly. A skeleton is lying on its back on ground that is baked and parched. Nothing is growing there. It’s a wasteland devoid of life. And the skeleton still has its fingers in its ears. Nobody’s going to convince himabout the wrath to come.

Perhaps the most interesting­­––and hopeful––thing about today’s gospel reading is that the people, even after being so fiercely chastised and challenged by the prophet, do not put their fingers in their ears. Instead, they ask the Baptist, “What then should we do?” John responds to each questioner in very concrete ways. And as the story concludes, what looked like judgment––the axe and the fire––turned out to be a strange form of good news, the best thing that could have happened, because it spurred people to let go of the unsustainable chaff and begin to change their ways.

Prophets can be hard, but they are so necessary to move us to repentance and action. Thank God for all those who push us where we need to go, who urge us toward transformation. We must change our lives, they tell us. And the time is now.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the immense challenges looming before us. Where do we turn for the hope and courage and strength we need for the facing of this hour? What faith says is this: We turn to God our Savior. We turn to the one in whom all our hope is grounded.

But in a world as secular as ours, where divine intention or activity is not a natural presupposition, and things just go on happening whether God is thought about or not, it can seem unintelligible to call God our Savior. What does it mean to say that God will save us? Doesn’t our culture teach us to act as if we are pretty much on our own, for better or worse? Isn’t God an unnecessary hypothesis?

If the question of God were nothing more than a theoretical proposition with which we agree or disagree, or simply ignore in the daily course of our lives, then it’s easy to live as if God makes no difference. But belief is not a theoretical matter. Belief is about how we live, and what kind of story we belong to.

It is certainly possible to live inside a story where God is absent or nonexistent. A lot of people do it. But I find that to be a bleak and unpromising account of reality––perhaps satisfactory, or even exhilarating, when things are good, but too vulnerable to cynicism and despair when the world goes off the rails.

People of faith, however, abide in a different story, a story where death does not have the last word, a story where Love wins. To say that God will save us is to belong to thatstory, and to live accordingly. And what are the fruits of faith’s life-shaping story?––trust, confidence, hope, and the kind of invincible joy which St. Paul proclaims with such passion. “Rejoice! Again I say, rejoice!”

Paul’s own joy was often tested. Even in jail, he wrote to his friends, “Do not worry about anything. Live in hope.” And countless saints have done exactly that.

In the book of Lamentations, a text drenched in the tears of profound suffering, we find one of the most hopeful verses in all of Scripture:

When my soul is bowed down, I keep one thing in mind, and so recover hope: Love’s mercies are never exhausted; they are renewed every morning (Lam. 3:20-23).

In the faith story, no matter how rocky the road or dangerous the journey, our path leads beyond every annihilation toward an unimaginable fulfilment. What has been broken will be restored, what has been wounded will be healed, what has been lost will be found. If such a hope were a statement about the world, it would be a foolish optimism, soon blown away by the winds of calamity. But Christian hope is not a statement about the world. It is a statement about God.

Hope is not about what the creature can do; it is about the never-ending resourcefulness of the Creator, who turns darkness into light and brings life out of death. Even to the blackest night, God will bring the dawn.

One of my Advent rituals is to play my recording of Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer,” an encouraging song imbued with prayerful hope, despite being written in a time of personal loss:

Keep a fire for the human race,
and let your prayers go drifting into space
you never know what will be coming down.

Perhaps a better world is drawing near;
just as easy it could all disappear,
along with whatever meaning you might have found.
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around.
Go on and make a joyful sound.

Into a dancer you have grown,
From a seed somebody else has thrown,
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own. . .

We are all dancers, the people who rejoice in hope, come what may. Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around. Go on and make a joyful sound.

Now to say that God is our Savior does not mean that God does all the work. Faith is not passivity. To be called into the story of God’s unfolding future means we ourselves have a lot of work to do: the work of changing our lives, the work of letting go what is unsustainable, the work of repairing the world, the work of becoming Love’s body in the here and now. Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own.

We do not do this work alone.
The Eternal One works beside us––and within us.
Our strength lies in a power deeper than our own capacities.
Our story is more than a dream of our own making.
And God’s mercies, Love’s kindnesses, are never exhausted.

The most dangerous place in the world

Small mtn tent still

I have come to understand that this small ring is the most dangerous place in the world, but also a place where everything is possible, where eyes are opened.

In Jacques Rivette’s magical film, Around a Small Mountain (2009), a footloose Italian named Vittorio, wandering Europe’s back roads in a sports car, chances upon a small French circus on tour in the backwater of Languedoc. Although the story is set in our own time, it is really a medieval romance. Vittorio is the knight errant questing for that nameless object of desire perpetually beyond his grasp. And the enchanted world of the cirque, curiously untouched by modernity, is the place where the knight will be tested.

When Vittorio encounters the enigmatic Kate, a woman who is “a prisoner to what happened” in the circus ring years ago, he lingers in her domain long enough to attempt a rescue. “All the dragons in our lives may be hurt princesses,” he says, echoing Rilke’s famous line: Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.

As Vittorio attempts to break the spell cast over Kate by the lingering presence of a dead father and the haunting absence of a dead lover, he has to face his own dragon, which is never specifically identified. The secret of his being remains a mystery, unknown to himself and to the actor who plays him, unknown to the audience and the director as well. The sentimentality of a conventionally romantic conclusion – man and woman settling down happily ever after – would betray this mystery, and Rivette rejects such an option. The ultimate fate of Kate and Vittorio is not revealed to themselves or us. “Will I start living again?” she wonders. “I don’t know if I am alive,” he says. Might the future perhaps return them to each other? “Who knows?” is the last line of the film.

We exit this cinematic world still mesmerized by its embrace of uncertainty, its refusal of resolution. Like the knight errant, we remain prisoners of unsatisfied longing. We wouldn’t have it any other way. As C. S. Lewis noted, an unsatisfied desire is “more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

Nevertheless, something transformational has happened to Kate and Vittorio and, vicariously, to us, in that “most dangerous place,” the circus ring. They have each stepped into the exposed and empty space where they must perform the truth of themselves, put themselves at risk, wrestle their demons, without really knowing in advance how they’ll ever get through it. But they have already taken their first steps into a new life. In the words of the German Romantic Friedrich Hölderlin, quoted in another Rivette film, “Where danger is, there grows the saving power also.”

I recently saw Around a Small Mountain for the first time, and I was particularly struck by the hermetic quality of the circus. It seems sealed within its own world, having minimal interaction with contemporary life. The landscape it travels remains little changed from the Middle Ages, as if forgotten by modernity. Though the circus is touring the towns around the perimeter of a small mountain, there is little sense of movement from place to place. Wherever the troupe pauses in their circuit, the mountain’s solitary peak still looms in the background, as if the land itself casts a spell they cannot escape.

In the course of the film, we see a number of performances, but they seem to have no public. The first time we enter the tent, there are only a few people in the audience as the camera sweeps over mostly empty seats. After that, the camera doesn’t even bother to look away from the ring to the surrounding bleachers, so we are never sure whether we are viewing a rehearsal or an actual show.

The acts are performed in an almost eerie silence, without applause or any other sounds to indicate the presence of an audience. This melancholy absence of witnesses seems of no concern to the acrobats, jugglers and clowns who carry out their rituals with as much devotion and attention as a priest saying mass in an empty church. Whether what they do is of any relevance to the outside world does not seem an issue for them. What matters is the faithful performance of the circus rites.

As I watched the ritualized actions in the circus ring, skills and gestures passed down through many centuries, imbued with the strangeness of a premodern sensibility, I could not help thinking about the Christian liturgy. We too perform rites forged in a distant past, shaped by a social imaginary largely unintelligible to secular modernity. And like the circus in the film, our “audience” has largely deserted us.

In his audio commentary on the DVD, Chris Fujimara describes the circus as “an end state, a final repository, a gathering and summation. Everything in life is being distilled and evoked from this ring in a way that has to do with aging, with memory, with death, with the imminent end of things, with the suggestion that the circus, this mode of entertainment and spectacle, already belongs to the past.”

There are those who see Christianity’s own pastness as prelude to extinction, and believe everything alien to the present social imaginary should be jettisoned as quickly as possible. I myself have spent over forty years adding radically contemporary elements to the worship mix. But that has never, I hope, been at the expense of the strangeness of what we do and the mystery of what we worship.

In some future posts I will have more to say about the implications of this strangeness for the concrete practices of worship as well as the need to connect with an absent public. But for now, like the ringmaster, may I simply direct your attention to the center ring, the most dangerous place in the world, the empty space where everything is possible, where eyes are opened. To paraphrase Jacques Rivette, “there is no other subject.”