3rd Sunday of Advent Gaudete Sunday
Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11; Psalm: Luke 1:46-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
We have all heard of the recent extension of the COVID “lockdown” here in BC. This is affecting everyone … everyone in some way. This is something that – whether you agree or disagree with what has happened – we are going through together.
When it comes to Christmas (keeping it, sharing time with others) people are struggling with being down in the dumps, stressed, concerned perhaps even scarred (for a whole host of reasons). To make matters even more challenging we know that the lockdown is extended to January 8th of next year. So – how are we do deal with this? How are we to respond? There are – no doubt – many answers to this but as Joshua told his people in the Old Testament “I’m with the Lord” so I will convey to you that “I’m looking to Scripture (God’s word) to both guide and teach me how to respond to this whole situation.
I want to focus on St Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians. Now – this was just read a few minutes ago. If this section of St Paul’s Letter did not make you a little uneasy or have you scratching your head or wondering “how the heck can I do that” or “are you serious” then I would submit you were not paying attention OR you are paying the Apostle a kind of ‘lip service’ — giving a polite nod to what he is saying. I will focus in on these three verses: “…Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1st Thess 5: 16-18). This is our answer – all the way from God – as to how to deal with COVID. To further this teaching from the Apostle it applies to pre-COVID and Post-COVID times. Listen again:
- Rejoice always,
- pray constantly,
- give thanks in all circumstances;
- for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you
You should be asking “really!” or “how can you expect me to do take that seriously?” If St Paul was here he would repeat it back to you — “I meant every word that I said.” It should unsettle you and give you assurance at the same time. This is not Paul writing from some “ivory tower,” removed from the day to day living that people have to experience. Paul was in prison and was pretty sure he was going to be put to death. So – his circumstances are NOT ideal by any standards … except, except … by the standards of a Christian and child of God!
St Paul knows exactly what this world can throw at someone … because it threw its worst at him. Did he run? No! Did he ignore it? No! Did he become depressed? He might have been tempted to this but he did not give in to it. What did he do? He did what he has written to us – he followed these three steps to true and lasting happiness. Rejoicing is not a request – it is an imperative. Paul did not just teach this, he lived it on a day to day basis, even in the midst of severe persecution, ostracization and isolation. How did he do this? He trusted the power of the Holy Spirit in his life and in the lives of Christians who would trust that same Spirit. Paul knew that the Lord was near him and this had a real effect on him. It stabilized his day to day living.
He prayed constantly. If this doesn’t make you question (how this is possible) then again I say you are not listening to what Paul is challenging you to. It has challenged great saints as to how this is possible. St Augustine admits that it is impossible to pray unceasingly if we restrict ourselves to formalized prayers. But there is, Augustine claims, “another inward kind of prayer without ceasing, which is the desire of the heart.” If you long for God, you do not cease to pray, for “the continuance of your longing is the continuance of your prayer.” To be sure this is not just some whimsical thinking about God but a deep longing for him that is nurtured by formal prayer.
The great St Thomas Aquinas gives his own answer to this question by drawing on the opinions of many who preceded him. He says that it is possible to pray without ceasing in three ways.
First, we do so by praying at the appointed times during the day.
Second, following Augustine, Thomas says that we pray when we desire God and God’s will.
Third, drawing on the biblical idea that gifts for the poor are gifts for God (e.g., Phil 4:18), Thomas teaches that almsgiving sets off a cascade of prayer that continues unceasingly, because “the one who receives your gift prays for you even while you are asleep.”
Last – give thanks in all circumstances. Not some, not those that are favorable, not when you have time but in ALL circumstances. If you are not centered in Christ then I would submit this is not possible nor does it even sound reasonable. If Jesus is the centre of your life then it is possible and what in fact makes THE difference in everything. I don’t pretend to have this 100% perfect in my life but I know that God sees all things – has seen all things – and has prepared all the grace I need to deal with whatever comes at me. It doesn’t mean I will always respond well but that is what repentance and contrition and restarting are for!
St Paul concludes – this is the will of God for you and me in Christ Jesus! It is God’s will and God knows everything – more than you or I could ever know. If you and I pray God will help us begin to “see” this with his eyes and heart and we will experience a reality that helps us deal with whatever the world and life throws at us. The outcome is that rather than dragging us down we will have strength and trust to rejoice — because the Lord is near and for you and me these are not just words but a reality that changes everything!