Rejoice! Again, I say, Rejoice.
It is Gaudete Sunday, “pink candle” Sunday—properly speaking, the colour is rose, but I won’t quibble. Gaudete is the Latin for “rejoice” and that is in the imperative case, meaning it’s a command. You will rejoice; and I get the sense this year that this is very much the order of the day, not from the Church so much as from government and business leaders. For economic reasons, rejoice and spend, because if we don’t have some good old consumer joy this season, we’ll have economic worries in the New Year. And this isn’t to be false joy, counterfeit jubilation. No, there is real cause to rejoice: the vaccine is coming!!!
It’s this message, of false confidence in worldly powers to keep us safe that we must fight against. And the gospel message is not about restoring the world to the way it was pre-COVID; that’s hardly God’s plan for us.
John the Baptist came with a message that flew in the face of the wisdom of his day: that the political strongman, the fearless worldly leader was the key to our salvation, and that this life beset by sin and death is all we can hope for.
We need to remember that the “son of God” in the first century, at the time of John the Baptist’s appearing, was not Jesus Christ, but rather the Roman Emperor. And the peace that was on offer was that of Rome. We need to remember the famous dictum: Rome makes a desert and calls it peace.
John the Baptist is asked, “Who are you?” and we will be asked the same question by those who find our faith a curiosity. We are not here to hail and welcome worldly power and we do not look to the worlds of politics and science for redemption, but rather repent and look to the true Messiah, the Christ, the true Son of God, for our redemption from sin and death.
The vaccines being prepared will not bring peace on earth, goodwill toward all. For some they mean we can have our lives back. That’s true redemption for them, I guess. To go to Walmart or Canadian Tire, and not have to wear a mask. To go on vacation to sunny destinations, take a Caribbean cruise, go to the outlet stores in Buffalo and Erie. To go to concerts, to the movies, to the hockey game, to the sports bar to watch the game; to shop for all that merch that goes with all of it, the concert t-shirt or the symphony tote bag, the reproduction sports jerseys, the movie collectables, the video games inspired by the movie that is based on the video game.
Once we’ve all had the shot, it’s back to the good life.
So, that is the good news for a lot of people—they want that life back. And this isn’t me condemning folks for wanting their small businesses up and running again, the shops downtown to get back in the black, for the restaurants to once again be busy with diners enjoying a meal out. I don’t condemn anyone for going out to a ballpark or taking in a concert or a movie. It’s just that’s not the good news. And indeed, if you’ve heard or read my pre-COVID homilies, there were lots of signs in the statistics with regard to mental health, family life, addictions, and so on, that indicated quite strongly that the “good life” of our modern society wasn’t really that good for us.
So, a return to normal, which I think a lot of us don’t believe we’ll ever really get back to, is definitely not the good news.
The good news is Jesus Christ: and if you’re someone who accepts his teaching, embraces his cross, and longs for eternal life in him, and through him, and with him, then you aren’t normal, and what you desire isn’t the normal desire of our age. Or rather, it is the true desire, but it is so suppressed in the consciousness of many, that they look to satisfy it through everything but God.
I’ve got to say, perhaps with an optimism born of both hope and foolishness, that this time of lockdown, shutdown, restrictions, protocols, regulations, might just result in something good for us all. As much as the media is hailing the coming of our epidemiological saviour, miraculously brought forth, not by a virgin, but the pharmaceutical industry, I think this time has sobered some of us up from the materialistic binging of the last, oh, fifty, sixty, seventy years, to the realization that this is not a good way to live. Lives of distraction from the harsh and unchanging realities of human life; harsh realities that really, most of humanity has continued to consciously live with; only we in the West enjoying a blissful respite from the age-old problems of war, pestilence and famine.
The English comedian Russell Brand recently
remarked on the annual Black Friday shopping; and on the media’s plumping for the retail sector and politicians promoting the idea of a consumer-driven economic stimulus for our battered economies. He thought the messaging odd, even jarring: going out to shop now is part civic duty, part spiritual exercise, both aimed at saving Christmas and the world through the power of consumerism. The commercial messages of chain stores like Walmart present happy workers, masked, gloved, as if for surgery, not sales; shopping carts are being sprayed down with disinfectant by staff clothed in discount hazmat suits. These are images more from the tradition of science fiction movies about epidemics, alien infections and zombies than the secular Christmas imagery of Santa dressed in his Coca-Cola red suit; elves churning out toys, and flying reindeer. The pictures present a sobering reality no matter the happy talk we hear over top of them. My grandfather’s generation would have called this, “whistling past the graveyard.”
I’m paraphrasing, but Brand essentially asked this: are you depressed? Anxious? Worried, looking at the state of the world, the political crises in America, France, Europe, Britain, the rise of a belligerent China? Have you lost your job? Your business? You grandmother? Well, here buy this flat-screen television on sale at never-before-seen low prices, and you’ll feel better.
Good old “retail therapy” is being offered to a world that has been, well, scared to death by COVID-19.
Is there anything that one can buy that will deal with the harsh reality of it all?
Now, you will know from my remarks in the past that I have had concerns about the response, that mental and physical health issues aside from COVID-19 were being sorely neglected; that a ruined economy would have dire health effects on people who find they can’t feed their families, purchase needed prescription drugs, and so on. But I can’t help but see one potential benefit in the reaction of our society: a needed reawakening of our awareness of mortality and what the Church has long called, “ultimate things.” Our sense of social invincibility provided by multi-layered and enormous government structures has eroded; our faith in science has been shaken by the inconsistencies in analysis and approach to the crisis we’ve all seen—well, seen if we have read, watched and listened broadly, beyond what Google will allow you to find.
Go back two thousand years, and consider the ancient world and the collapse of the Roman republic into a sometime-benevolent dictatorship; the Roman peace bought at the suffocation of lesser nations; the helplessness people experienced in the face of diseases like leprosy, and the plagues that struck with terrifying regularity.
Into that world came Jesus; and in this world, he can still be found; and in the finding, there’s good news in that.
The foundation of our lives must be something far greater than politics or science; our purpose more than getting and spending; our lives more than an accumulation of years.
There are human activities that we cannot do without, these are the things of this world, but as the prayers of the Advent masses remind us: “…we walk amid passing things,” and are to learn “to judge wisely the things of earth and hold firm to the things of heaven.”
Rejoice, indeed. For we know who our Saviour is, the true prince of peace, Jesus Christ our Lord.