Zeph 3: 14-18; Phil 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 10-18
So, nine days left until Christmas. I don’t feel ready, but that’s nothing new. There have really been two words that sum up this Advent season. The first is obviously “expectation”. That’s what the season is all about. We speak of the coming of Christ at the end times, in our lives, and of course at Christmas, so that word really is synonymous with Advent. The other word that we’ve heard these weeks is from Saint Paul who again stresses the word anxiety. That theme will carry through Christmas when we will hear about fear. Whether we know it or not the two can be very much entangled with one another.
Expectation, or this sense of longing, has been hijacked by the cultural Christmas and even society in general. The entire structure is built on an expectation that I’m going to find the right gift to make someone happy. We all have seen with our own eyes the excitement of kids on Christmas but also how quickly the gift gets tossed aside, dashing our own expectation. I’m no different. I spent yesterday on my computer, even telling myself that this is crazy, but it’s so embedded in who we are that we start to feel guilty about not doing it or letting people down and all this stuff, none of which is going to ever satisfy that longing and expectation in our hearts. More often than not we’re not even aware how we’re being manipulated by it because it’s the only thing we know. That’s where anxiety then feeds into the unrealistic expectation. This season, though, is not about happiness, which is fleeting. Rather, as we hear today, is about joy. It’s about being satisfied with what we have and even grateful for it, not needing something else “out there” to do the trick. This false sense of expectation and its accompaniment with anxiety has brought down civilizations all for looking for a “quick fix” to the deepest longing of our hearts as individuals and as a human race.
That’s where Israel finds itself in the first reading today. It’s the only time we hear from the Prophet Zephaniah. As a matter of fact, we hear the only positive message that occurs in the book. Jerusalem finds itself in a rather usual position, about to once again be destroyed. It is a city that has fallen into disarray and extreme corruption and now stands on the brink of being destroyed by the Babylonians. As is history of our people, they too look elsewhere to bring some sense of peace to the longing of the people. It’s a pain that runs deep. They, like us, convince ourselves that somehow if things were just this way or I had that thing, all would be right in the world. Israel always wants to look beyond itself rather than journey inward. It’s how they become corrupt and separated from their purpose as people. The more they become separated the greater the fear and anxiety get fed and the more the longing deepens. It’s a perpetual cycle that we all fall prey to as human beings. It should be no surprise to any of us that there are so many people that suffer from anxiety disorders in one way or another because that’s all we know. It’s ingrained in our culture but it’s ingrained in the pain that runs through that longing that we anticipate. In the end, we find ourselves even with expectations of the expectations we hold and the Christmas culture loves it. It feeds on our weakness as humans knowing we’re going to go looking.
It is expectation that the people have in seeking out John the Baptist as well. They think maybe finally he’s the one that is going to satisfy that longing. Yet, he will forever be misunderstood by them because of the expectation of that expectation that they had, that somehow he was the one that was going to undo the systems of his day in the way he preached and spoke. Again, more often than not we do the same thing. Who knows if these religious and political systems will ever be undone, knowing that the power associated with that longing is so appealing. John knew he wasn’t that person and never could be. All he could do is point the way. He pointed the way in actions they could take, but it will only be in Christ where they will find that fulfillment. They won’t find it simply by doing the right thing. They do it by entering into relationship with the Christ, becoming aware of when they are falling prey otherwise, and once again accept that the longing and expectation lies only with God, with Christ. That’s a decision that John can’t make for them but one they have to make for themselves. It me and you that have to decide whether we’re going to keep blaming rather than seeking that change of heart within ourselves. More often than not we’d prefer Santa Claus to God and when neither seem to give us what we want, we bail, only leaving us longing for more and seeking it elsewhere.
We already have what we need and what will give us the peace we desire. It’s easy for us to say that but much more to allow ourselves to trust it in those moments of longing and expectation. We allow ourselves to be fed by the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by the unrealistic expectations of a culture. The gift has already been given to each of us, yet it’s not going to stop us from looking, thinking that we need to or the guilt overtakes us. If we want to pass on to future generations it should be a seeking of joy. It may not be easy but it’s not so fleeting as happiness. The whole season is moving us to the same place as Mary, a place of yes to the gift. A yes to the longing and expectations of our heart, to a God that deeply desires us to be people of life and joy. It’s right there and so close and yet at times seems so far away. God has already wrapped it in the most beautiful of paper, awaiting us to say yes to pulling the ribbon and to be opened to the true meaning of the season and a recognition of what will truly fulfill our longings and expectations, all while freeing us of our fear and anxiety, our relationship with Christ and our falling into mystery.