Today’s readings: Zephaniah 3, 14-18; Philippians 4, 4-7; Luke 3, 10-18.
This third Sunday of Advent is all about joy and happiness. What is it that really makes us happy? The pursuit of joy and happiness can be very elusive. In her book The Happiness Track, Emma Seppala writes how we are urged to craft careers that matter, to achieve more and waste no time on the small stuff. Rather than thriving, all this pressure affects our well-being, relationships and productivity.
Underlying the Advent journey, there is a largely unconscious process towards freedom. We are never totally free from instincts and compulsions that lie deep within us and over which at times we have little control. The path to freedom leads us to become more who we are and who we are meant to be.
In today’s gospel there is a focal question addressed to John: “What must we do, then?” This question sets the scene for us to learn how to choose wisely the path to our inner freedom that in turn gives us true joy. To be happy one needs to be free, and to be free is to put justice, truth and service to others over and above our own personal gain or our need for recognition.
Clinging to our own selves and closing our eyes and ears to the pain and struggles around us, makes us at the end of the day less virtuous and more vulnerable. Aristotle, speaking of passions as being like a horse that has a life of its own, suggests that as riders we need to take into account the life of the horse in order to guide it where we want it to go.
John’s proclamation of the coming of “someone who is more powerful than I am” is a proclamation of justice. We cannot have peace without justice. There is no justice without love. Those listening to John were representative of all categories of society, and his words to them put in very concrete terms the meaning of “every valley will be filled in and every mountain and hill be laid low”.
As long as justice is not shaping our daily living and social networks, it makes no sense at all to speak of joy and happiness at Christmas time. There are still too many structured and legitimised mechanisms of slavery, corruption and exploitation in our dealings, which make peace and justice unreachable.
This makes this season a spring of hope for some and a winter of despair for others. This is a tale of two cities relived. We live in times of highly sophisticated technology, and yet times in which unfortunately, anger, rebellion and a sense of being lost are so manifest. The call for more and more justice and equity seems unheeded.
In the first reading, the prophet Zephaniah, addressing times that were tragic for Israel, speaks of a joy that is uncontainable. Despite the facts around him, he strongly believed that joy and happiness were still a possibility. Today we still have unacceptable inequalities practically everywhere in the affluent West. Let alone in the rest of the world from where millions of people come to our shores in search of a future and an identity.
This makes it hard to shout loud with Zephaniah that joy is possible. And this is happening in a time when we led ourselves to believe that in the wake of all that has been achieved in modern times, we can count ourselves and the entire world as belonging to a story of progress.
Christmas is about how God engaged with the world to transmit a joy that is transforming. This joy cannot be fabricated and is not dependent on material things. It is a joy of a spiritual nature, it transcends mere material progress and it can only thrive in a society that is just. As long as justice is lacking, our stories will continue to be a tale of two cities, and our joy, seeking to alienate us from the sadness of others, will be fake.
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