Two Latin words Gaudete and Laetare are both translated as Rejoice. What is the difference between them after all they both use rose as their liturgical colour?
According to a famous liturgist, Pius Parsch, "Nature's annual cycle is characterised by two phenomena, light and life. Out of the darkness of night comes light; out of death comes life. The transition from night to light characterises the winter season; the transition from death to life is proper to summertime. The holy year of the Church is likewise divided into two phases which have similar characteristics”. (The Church’s Year of Grace).
We are, in the northern hemisphere, approaching the winter solstice from whence the day will get longer. It is this turn from darkness to light that the Church capitalises on and asks of us to raise our heads because the Light of the World is approaching. In the midst of waiting and expecting, we are asked to celebrate because God is near.
What does it mean that we celebrate and if so, how should we do it?
We celebrate because the need for social connexion is a deeply human trait. We are more social beings than we are radical individuals. When we want to mark an important event, a rite of passage, a change in status, we require these interpersonal connexions to make what we commemorate more meaningful. Let me give you a rather sad example. A few years ago, it was my birthday but nobody in the community realised it and so no one wished me. It was one of those things about community living. In the evening I drove to a Japanese restaurant and walked in, announced that it was my birthday and I was going to celebrate it alone. It was a solo thing but the waiters were great, they crafted an impromptu ice cream cake and brought it out for me. It sounds like a pathetic sob story but it highlights our need to connect. Human beings die not from neglect but from the lack of social interactions.
In desiring to make connexions more meaningful or to celebrate, the question is how we should do it.
Yesterday, the Office of Human Development organised a party for children, some of them from poor families—to give them a taste of Christmas. What I am going to describe is NOT a criticism of what the OHD did but the recounting is to invite us to reflect on the manner or form that our celebrations should take. For the children, it was simply a sliding slip down a sugary slope and with that quantity of sugar in their system, the kids could not be anything but hyper. I was asked to give a speech and so I proposed next year to dope the children with three or four spoonful of codeine-laced, cherry flavoured cough syrup before they begin the party.
The point is this: Have you ever noticed that we frequently associate celebrations with excesses. Somehow we seem to latched on to super-sizing as the only way to celebrate or to enjoy life. Big, more, and a lot are seemingly better when it comes to our definition for joyful celebration. Come to think about it, it is not confined to our celebrations. 50 years ago, houses were smaller and people got on famously with one toilet and one bathroom. Today, apparently, every room in our house has to be an ensuite—bathroom and toilet attached. When it comes to vehicles, the entry level car for many of us is no longer a sedan but it has to be an SUV. In China, apparently, to host a dinner you need to have a 15-course meal where the guests would no longer be bothered after the 7th dish. In short, our ability to celebrate or enjoy life is warped by excesses or wastages on a massive scale.
The Gospel might clue us in on why we have become like that. In the desert, three groups of people came to consult John. Instead of excesses, John told these people simply to tone down.
To the Jews, he advised against selfishness. Those who have more should share. It is a call to less selfishness. The loathsome tax collectors belong to the second group. For them, he counselled against greed. Sadly, insecure that we are, it is almost impossible to work for enough. Why? We operate along the line that there is not enough and so we hoard. We want more, just in case, the good things in life run out. Finally, the third group consists of soldiers who were concerned about what they should do. To them, he instructed that they should refrain from blackmail or extortion. In short, those in authority should not abuse their power.
If you think further, what are selfishness, greed and the abuse of power but relational sins. These are sins that involved taking too much of a good thing for ourselves and in the process others are deprived of or prevented from access to the necessities of life. Many of life’s unjust situations reveal to us the shallowness of our relationships or more likely the absence of true and meaningful relationship. Selfishness is just an absence of selfless behaviour. Greed is just the void left by the lack of generosity. Abuse of power happens when authority forgets its true calling to serve. Let us be clear here. Nobody ever wakes up in the morning to tell himself, “Hmmm, I am going to be selfish, greedy or I am going to abuse my power”. On the contrary, selfishness, greed and the abuse of power may appear as reasonable behavioural patterns. People act in a particular manner simply because they think that that is good conduct. However, the consequence such actions or attitudes is cosmic or existential loneliness.
So, when relationships are marked by selfishness, greed or the abuse of power, then there is a void or an emptiness which seeks to be filled up. In the absence of meaningful connexion, our celebration will often take the form of excesses. We tend to compensate for the lack of intensity or the shallowness in our relationship by overdoing it. We eat heartily. We drink heavily. We party persistently. This kind of enjoyment leaves us empty rather than satisfied, desolate rather than fulfilled.
Drinking, eating and socialising can heighten our relationship with each other. A good example of this depth of relationship is found in the Eucharist. It is a sacred meal whereby we intensify our relationship with each other. But because we are unable to connect to each other due to the brokenness of our relationship, drugs, alcohol, drinks, games instead become poor substitutes. People who yearn or long for deeper contacts mistake drugs, overeating or excessive drinking to be the road to connexion, relationship and community.
Community is built on relationships which are just. In that way, such a community anticipates the joys of heaven. And today John reminds us that if we all want a deeper sense of community so that our celebration can bring us closer to heaven, then we need to be “sober” in our relationship in the sense that we need to tone down our sins of selfishness, greed and the abuse of power. When people are on good terms with each other, when relationship is marked by grace, it does not take a lot to touch us at our deepest core. When that happens, even a cup of coffee is a cause of celebration. We do not need to overcompensate. So these days, as we celebrate the nearness of the Lord, let us be mindful of the areas of our lives that prevent us from connecting to others—do not be selfish, do not be greedy and if we are powerful, use our authority wisely because God is near.