The Word Encountered
Joy in the Diminishments
“Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Don’t worry; be happy. So we’ve always been advised on the third Sunday of Advent. Crank up the jollies. Rejoice. Cheer up.
What if you don’t feel like it? What if you feel besieged, overworked, overwrought, tired, cramped, and alone?
Sometimes the most useless thing to say to a sad person is “Snap out of it.” Yet this is what the Liturgy of the Word seems to insist on. Zephaniah tells a timid, disheartened people: “Fear not, be not discouraged. ... God will rejoice over you with gladness.” Simple as that.
To rub it in, the psalmist, despite our fears and weaknesses, cheerily demands that we cry out with joy, that we be confident and unafraid. You might as well say, “Have a happy day,” or pass out smile buttons.
Paul is just as bad. To a bickering, fearful, and restless community he writes: “Be unselfish. Dismiss anxiety from your minds. Just trust our God and present your needs.” Then the Church, supposedly, will be flooded with peace, understanding, and harmony.
But what if it doesn’t work? What if Advent doesn’t take? What if things get worse or the pain does not let up?
Advent’s themes of happiness and hope can annoy someone who hurts. When you are burdened with the chaff of ego or the weight of anxieties, forced joy and canned glee disgust the best of persons.
Yet it is nothing but our diminishment, our losses, our sadness, our weight of sin that Advent confronts and calls us out of. Somehow it is the pathos of our own melancholy that must be laughed away. It is our sense of exile, our cramped confinement, the dross of our psychic baggage that must be burned off by the fire of love.
The crowds John encountered had, themselves, little reason for joy. Aware of their own need for deliverance, they felt a glimmer of anticipation that he might be the messiah. He counseled justice and rectitude, but the promise he spoke of was something far more than they might have suspected or wanted: “I am baptizing you with water, but there is one to come who is mightier than I. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn in unquenchable fire.”
I used to think this passage referred to the contrast between the saved and the lost. My prayer was to be in the happy granary, not burnt in the fire.
But this is clearly a misreading of the Baptist’s words. The fire is part of the baptism in Jesus and his spirit. Fire is not the fate of the lost, but the refining of the blessed. We all have our chaff, our dross, our waste. We all have our winnowing. And it is the fire of Christ that will burn it away. The burdens we carry do not make us unfit for Advent’s message. They qualify is as prime candidates.
The only exit from Dante’s Purgatorio was a wall of fire. Once the pain was burned away by love, the other side was Paradise, sheer joy.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University