Advent is a season of preparation, but it is not to be a gloomy one. That would be impossible to maintain any way with all the bling, the lights, the songs and the carols. So, apologies to everyone who is brushing off the Bah Humbug hats and jumpers, this is very much a party season, a time of joy, even enforced joy – to which I will return. So although in churches we tend to hold back on all of the trappings for just another week, clinging on to Advent, while all around us have gone straight to Christmas celebration – this evening’s carol service excepted, our readings this morning bring rejoicing centre stage. This is Gaudete Sunday and that Latin word for ‘rejoice’ was all through our readings. This is not a recent invention, part of the over commercialization of a winter festival, but as fans of the 1970s group Steeleye Span will know, who had a hit with a setting of a medieval carol under that name, ‘Gaudete’, it is deeply rooted. Rejoice in God and that is the key to the joyfulness.
The colour of this Sunday, for churches which use purple candles, rather than red ones, is pink. The pink or rose coloured candle is for rejoicing. Yesterday I spoke at the Mar Thoma Church’s carol service, which was held at St Jude’s Church. They draw families from over a 40-mile radius and they travel for a service that lasts 3 hours. The commitment is impressive, deeply so, and I wonder how many Anglicans would do that? Does this faith fill us so deeply with rejoicing that we would travel each week up to 40 miles for a three-hour service? I came away quite humbled by their faith, their commitment and their generous hospitality. It was deeply impressive and we could learn so much from them. When they move into St John’s Hall, which will be their new regional home, if we engage with them we may find we get changed by them.
I took a visual aid with me, what I thought was a silver balloon. Well it looked silver in the shop. But when I got it home and saw it in different light, it was bright pink. Not in the slightest bit silver. So I had a visual aid of a bright pink star shaped balloon. Thank God for Gaudete Sunday, for rejoicing, and pink being its colour. I’m sure no one noticed! We rejoice because God is God and the news of Christ dawning on the world is so special that our hearts are to be filled with unrestrained joy.
This can’t be forced. It has to be genuine. Enforced party happiness, if you are not feeling like it does not improve the mood. Smiling and thinking happy thoughts can improve the mood, but if you are not happy, for whatever reason, enforced jollity is about as welcome as a slap, and tends to feel like one, an assault on the emotions. The joy which Gaudete rejoicing expresses is a deeply rooted one, anchored in the hope and faith in Jesus Christ. In the words of the Epistle, we “rejoice in the Lord always”. ‘The peace of God guards our hearts and minds’, protects and raises the spirit so that rejoicing is honest and hope-filled, not the empty false smile. (Philippians 4:4-7) All of us know how to wear the clowns face, that smiles with tears just below the surface. This is not the rejoicing of Gaudete; it is false, a pretense and denial. The rejoicing St Paul had in him is a rejoicing even in and through dark and troubled times and that makes it far more profound.
There is much to depress us. Walk round the city at night and so many people are bedding down in doorways and it is now very cold. The Winter Night Shelter project has begun and is offering beds, love, care and support. It will work with those who come under their care and some find this rescue changes their fortunes, with a way out of that crisis. Some, of course, are in a deep state of despair and are not in an easy place from which to access alternative options. It is complex. And another’s distress can be hard to bear, or we protect ourselves by hardening our hearts and shutting them out. Walking by not even on the other side of the road – we can’t stop for everyone, every day and every night. Rejoicing in the face of such distress is as much of a challenge as it is a proclamation of hope. Working with them is not one of despair, but bringing hope into deeply damaged and derailed lives. And through slow, careful work and getting alongside, hope is brought and dawns in dark lives.
There are moments though when we have to intervene, directly and now. The other night I and a colleague were alarmed at night by the screams of a woman in the precincts. I was at my desk in my study and she was at her desk a few doors away. When we both went outside to investigate we had to intervene to stop an assault taking place. There was big difference between these screams and the shrieks of excitement and high spirits we also hear. So in this case there was no question of it being crying wolf. That woman has found help through emergency nightshelter provision and being put in touch with a refuge. Domestic violence requires our rejoicing to step in and stop it, even face down the aggressor, which I had to do, while my colleague cared for the highly distressed woman. Rejoicing is not necessarily cozy and detached.
Our nation is in crisis at the moment. I spoke about this last week and my encouragement was to pray for the healing of this nation. How do we speak peace, hope and rejoicing into such a challenge? I don’t pretend it is easy, and I have my moments of utter despairing here. This is not party political because our major parties are clearly split. On Thursday on Question Time on BBC 1, the Tory party even fielded two ex-ministers who clearly held diametrically opposing views. Labour show similar splits. There was an interesting article in the Church Times this week which expressed this and argued that wherever the outcome, Britain has Brexited Britain. We are a nation in search of a national identity which coheres and makes home feel like home. Into this we have a role to be so rooted and confident in our faith, in the identity it brings that it makes us open and generous to neighbours and strangers alike. Open and generous are signs that rejoicing is in our bloodstream. The national debate is not displaying many signs of openness and generosity. Holding differences while also respecting and honouring is a sign of maturity and security of identity.
When a system is anxious, and our nation is anxious at the moment, it becomes even more important for people of hope to bring a calming and hope-filled presence to bear. In the words of the Epistle, to “let your gentleness be known. The Lord is near!” (Philippians 4:5) This springs from rejoicing, because it is rooted and grounded in deep faith and confidence in God’s future, God’s saving love. These are core values to affirm and say that a country rooted in Christianity, and this nation has deeply Christian roots, a nation like this must hold these as core values. Gracious, open, generous, hopeful and confident in who we are under God – that is our gift to our neighbours in a time of crisis and deep anxiety.
Advent is a season of preparation, but it is not a gloomy one. We prepare to welcome Christ, who comes among us in surprising guises and in surprising ways. Christ who meets us in the hungry, the homeless, the ill and the most vulnerable, and when we serve them we serve Christ. We prepare our hearts to be ready to meet him should he come again in glory, to be ready to accept and acknowledge the hope and joy of salvation that life is filled with God’s purpose and is held in the heart and love of God. Advent is a time of rejoicing – whether your balloon is silver or pink.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 3, Sunday 16th December 2018