“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. Indeed, the Lord is near.” Philippians 4:4-5.
Rejoice, the Lord is near! And yet, how strange both John the Baptist and Saint Paul, these were the most troubling time in their lives. Paul was in prison, awaiting his fate. Luke’s gospel tells us that King Herod took John into custody, where he suffered beheading. A painful and demoralizing moment in this pre-Christmas story.
We rejoice on the Third Sunday of Advent since it is known as “Gaudete Sunday,” Latin for “let us rejoice!” Our Candlelight Mass at Santa Catalina has a long tradition and marks the first glimmer of joy at the coming of Christ – whose Christmas light destroys the darkness.
Many of our Christmas customs in song, literature and religious practice come from our distant relatives in England, Germany, Mexico, or Italy. Let me provide two examples.
This Candlelight Mass has its roots in the story of Saint Lucy, the patron of Syracuse or Siracusa in Sicily, whose feast day is on Monday.
Lucy was a third-century martyr and a patron of the blind. On her feast day, December 13, candlelight processions reenact Lucy’s model of supplying bread and food to persecuted Christians who were in deep hiding. An act for which she was martyred.
In the Scandinavian countries, on the darkest day in the yearly calendar, tradition calls for candlelight processions with young girls dressed in white with a red sash. The one selected as the leader adorns a crown with lighted candles and bears a serving tray of Christmas cookies and treats for all those in attendance. This procession is a glimpse of the joy that comes with the birth of Christ at Christmas.
We began our Mass this evening with the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” probably the single hymn most associated with the season of Advent. The song embraces the liturgical cycle, combining a 15th Century French chant with an ancient Latin text.
First printed in German hymnals, by 1895, James Mason Neale translated the text into English. His efforts helped launch the Oxford Movement, a path of spiritual renewal in the Church of England that enlisted into its ranks the likes of John Henry Newman and so many others. Not without some controversy, since it was considered a Roman Catholic hymn added to the Anglican or Protestant hymnal.
Much like James Mason Neale, Charles Dickens, a generation earlier, directed his countrymen to consider their poor treatment of fellow citizens and how respect and charity must mark Christmas in season and out of season. Even the troubled Mr. Scrooge eventually had a change of heart to embrace the spirit of Christmas.
If Christ is to embody “Emmanuel” or “God with us,” our actions must be clear signs of our affection for one another, and most especially those in need. On his recent pastoral visit to Cyprus and Greece, Pope Francis compared the plight of today’s migrants and refugees, many of whom have died at sea, as a “horrendous modern Odyssey.” He warned that citizens should beware of politicians with an “obsessive quest for popularity” and appealed for a return to “good politics,” stating that democracy has deteriorated dangerously when discontented people are lured by the “siren songs” of leaders who promise easy but unrealistic solutions.
How do our national leaders and, most significantly, religious leaders launch this spirited season in the hope of spiritual healing in our often conflicted society and polarized churches? Above all else, Saint Paul counsels: “Rejoice in the Lord, again I say rejoice. Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near!”
John the Baptist was at the intersection of the God of the desert and the God of the temple. Not that it was an either/or, like Jesus, John put privilege aside for service and spiritual comfort for those in need. And like Jesus, John preached about personal reform, conversion, or transformation. In the gospel, people ask, “What did you go out to see? A reed blowing in the wind?” How was it that the desert was a place to find God?
How do our national leaders, especially religious leaders, launch this Advent season and hope for spiritual healing?
Perhaps, by listening most carefully to these verses of the old Advent hymn: “O Come, O Dayspring and cheer us by drawing near. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night. And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.