Third Sunday of Advent
Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18A; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
Let’s jump ahead about a week and a half and imagine what Christmas morning will be like. What if you get exactly what you want? Maybe you get the perfect gift? Or, maybe the family finally gets together? How will you feel? Thrilled? Happy? If someone were to ask you if you feel happy, you probably wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Yes!”
At the end of this week arguably the most anticipated movie of all time is coming out: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Online ticket sales, which opened in late October(!), are already exceeding fifty million dollars. One can almost taste the excitement over this movie. Many, many fans will be very happy the day they go see this blockbuster movie. Better said, they will likely enter a state of delirious ecstasy!
These experiences show us that we often think of happiness in terms of getting what we want, the thrill of a desire fulfilled. We are happy for a reason: the perfect Christmas present, a long-awaited movie, being with family, and a plethora of other things. We look for happiness outside ourselves, not within. The feeling of happiness washes over us through something, someone, or some experience. The problem is, this type of happiness never lasts and never truly satisfies.
Real happiness, according to our readings, is neither a momentary feeling nor the thrill of getting what we want. Today’s readings don’t use the word happiness, but use the words “rejoice,” and “joy.” Joy differs from happiness. While happiness has a cause, joy is uncaused. Joy does not come from something outside us but from the God within. Our joy, to put it simply, IS God. Joy, then, also differs from happiness in that it lasts; it is eternal because joy is found in the eternal God.
Paul urges us to “rejoice in the Lord always.” He advises us to seek divine joy, not just happiness in things or even in people. None of it lasts. Rather, let us look to God, allowing our spirits to rest in the Divine Mystery. There we find joy. The newest apple product won’t give us joy, just a passing thrill. Neither will our next vacation or a job promotion or reconnecting with long-lost family and friends bring us the happiness we so desperately crave. Only God is our ultimate joy. Our lives get overstuffed with so much junk that we fail to notice the joy within us. Being so focused on pleasure outside us, we don’t see how we’re already swimming in an infinite ocean of joy.
The people in today’s Gospel were filled with expectation and wondered whether John the Baptist might be the Messiah. He responds by saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John performs a ritual that does not compare with what the One who is coming will do. For, Jesus – the One who is coming – baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
Baptism derives from a Greek word meaning “immersion.” In ancient times people were baptized by plunging into a river, letting the water engulf them totally. When we say Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, we mean that Jesus immerses us – head to toe, body and soul – in the Holy Spirit. Through Jesus we come to realize we are all immersed in the Divine Presence. It is a lot like a sponge dwelling in the depths of the ocean. Fr. Martin Laird explains, “We might liken the depths of the human to the sponge in the ocean. The sponge looks without and sees ocean; it looks within and sees ocean. The sponge is immersed in what at the same time flows through it. The sponge would not be a sponge were this not the case.”(Into the Silent Land, 17) We are immersed in God and God dwells intimately in each one of us. We’re all swimming in God, and God is in us even more than water is in a sponge.
God is always here, within us, closer than we could ever imagine. We can boldly sing with the Psalmist: “Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel.” The joy of God is always available to us, all we have to do is let go into God. St. John of the Cross says it so well: “What more do you want, O soul! And what else do you search for outside, when within yourself you possess your riches, delights, satisfaction, fullness, and kingdom – your Beloved whom you desire and seek? Be joyful and gladdened in your interior recollection with him, for you have him so close to you. Desire him there, adore him there. Do not go in pursuit of him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and wearied thereby, and you shall not find him, or enjoy him more securely, or sooner, or more intimately than by seeking him within you.”(Spiritual Canticle 1:8)
Our challenge is to go within and adore God in the silence, what John calls our “interior recollection.” Our joy is not in this or that thing, or in getting what we want. Rather, our joy is simply and purely God. It is not about how God makes us feel, or any spiritual experience we may have, but it is simple faith in God as God is. God just is. That is enough for us. That is our joy. So, Christian joy totally focuses on God and not on self. In this way we follow Jesus’ command to deny self. Even more, we join Jesus on the cross and let God raise us into the divine life, which is all bliss. This divine bliss, moreover, is available now! Again, we are all swimming in God; God is in us even more than water is in a sponge. The only thing we have to do is pray, let God be God, just be here-now-and enjoy God’s presence in the silence of faith within.