St John’s, Centralia—1 Thessalonians 5:16-28, Psalm 126
Back in the early and mid-eighties, in the years just before I went off to seminary, I was deeply involved, as a lay catechist, in the preparation of adults for baptism and confirmation. It was a pretty intense process, and it was our habit to take each year’s crop of candidates on a brief retreat—a fasting retreat, actually—in the middle of the Paschal Triduum. We would leave for a nearby retreat center right after the conclusion of the Good Friday liturgy, and bring them back into town mid-afternoon on Holy Saturday, where everybody had just a few hours to recharge before coming back to church for the Easter Vigil, when the baptisms would take place.
I still have an image burned into my memory from one of those years. We were on our way to the retreat, just a couple of blocks from the church. I was in somebody else’s car, not driving. I happened to glance up at a marquee promoting a hotel restaurant and lounge. All it said was, “It’s Friday, so party hearty.” Now, mind you, I had just come from the intense and emotionally demanding liturgy of Good Friday, with the dramatic reading of the Passion and the Veneration of the Cross. My mind was on helping lead a retreat and on the Vigil liturgy 24 hours later.
“It’s Friday, so party hearty.” My first reaction was one of revulsion mixed with sadness mixed with a little bit of superiority. How could anyone think of “partying hearty” on Good Friday? But then I remembered another Good Friday a few years earlier, when I was in college, and exploring San Francisco for the first time. In effect, I was “partying hearty” on Good Friday.
What this incident, and my subsequent realization, illustrate for me, is the profound and uncomfortable disconnect between our “religious” lives and our “real” lives. For too many of us, things like Good Friday—or Epiphany, or the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, or, for that matter, the Third Sunday of Advent—are what happens in church but have no meaningful relationship with day-to-day reality in the world. Inside the church, for those who are there, it’s Good Friday. But when they walk out of the church, or at least when they drive off the parking lot, it’s Friday night, and time to party hearty.
Consequently, we have difficulty knowing what to do with the approach of religious festivals—like, for example, Christmas. We have a better idea of what to do with the secular season known as “the holidays,” but let’s face it, it isn’t really Christmas anymore. I heard a commercial recently sung to a familiar tune, but the words were “We wish you a happy holiday, we wish you a happy holiday…”. So, we have some inkling of what to do with “the holidays,” but Christmas throws us for a loop. For the most part, we’re indifferent toward the approach of Christmas, or bored by it. And as for the actual approach of the consummation of our salvation, the glorious return of our Lord and Savior, we hardly give it a second thought. We just party hearty on Friday night.
This sense of disconnection between the sacred and the secular, between the religious and the temporal, is probably rooted in a number of complex causes. I would speculate, however, that a big part of it is because we lack a vivid understanding of the enormity of what God has saved us from. The great colonial Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards was known for being able to paint such a vivid picture of the pains of Hell that his listeners would break out in a sweat even on a cold winter morning! I don’t propose to do anything like that even if I were so gifted, but we could do worse than, from time to time, taking stock of just what we have been delivered from through the mercy and grace of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Without Christ, we are under the iron grip of sin and death. Without Christ, we are drowning in dysfunction, depression, and despair. Without Christ, we have no hope and no future, and no reason, other than basic instinct, to even draw our next breath. We might also do well to focus some attention on the splendor of what God has saved us for: As the title of a popular book from some years ago suggests, we have been saved to live a truly purpose-driven life. God’s mercy and grace, including the gift of faith, have set us on a trajectory for the ultimate fulfillment of desires so deep we don’t even have words for them.
So, when we fully appreciate just what it is that God has done for us—what He has saved us from and what He has saved us for, then a lot of things begin to make more sense. Christmas makes a lot more sense. Easter makes a lot more sense. Advent and Lent make a lot more sense. And if we pay close attention, even the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost takes on a beauty all its own. But what really starts to make a lot more sense are all the passages of scripture that call us to be joyful, to live lives that are dominated by uncontrollable joy. St Paul, through his letter to the Thessalonians, tells us to “rejoice always.” Always. In whatever circumstances. Even in the midst of a viral pandemic that will soon have taken 300,000 lives just in the United States in the last nine months, and which greatly restricts the way we live our lives.
In the western liturgical tradition, this Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is referred to as “Gaudete”—or “Rejoice!” Sunday, because of the fixed opening hymn in the old Latin rite. The Psalmist sings today “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” Actually, only if we are fully conscious of what the Psalmist is singing about, only if we are fully aware of just what the great things are that the Lord has done for us, does St Paul’s admonition make any sense. Only if we are aware of the height and the breadth and the depth of the Lord’s mercies showered on us do we have chance of not laughing off the notion of rejoicing always. John the Baptist tells us that the Best Man in a wedding rejoices greatly on hearing the voice of the groom. He was, of course, referring to himself as the Best Man and to Jesus as the groom. Even though Jesus’ arrival on the scene meant that his own public ministry was at an end, even though he would only decrease, and Jesus would increase, John was able to rejoice because he was aware of the magnitude of what God was going to accomplish through Jesus. When we fully appreciate just what it is that God has done for us, joy become an authentic expression of our lives. We realize that joy is the fitting response, the only fitting response, to the approach of Christmas, and the approach of our salvation. The theme of this “Gaudete” Sunday makes sense.
I have a feeling that the “party hearty” attitude encouraged by that hotel sign that I saw nearly four decades ago had less to do with authentic rejoicing than it did with people anesthetizing themselves from the depression and despair in which they lived their lives. Even though those of us on our way to a retreat were subdued and a little somber, I think we knew more about rejoicing than the “Friday night” crowd. The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.