A reflection by Fr. Dave Warren, SFM, on the Third Sunday of Advent: Zephaniah 3.14-18; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.10-18
When I was a kid, I always felt excited on Christmas Eve. But on Christmas night, I felt melancholy. Maybe it’s the Irish in me. The Irish writer William Butler Yeats once said, “Being Irish, I have an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains me through temporary periods of joy.” But it’s not just in my genes. The anticipation of Christmas always seems greater than the reality.
Most of the joy of Christmas lies in the preparation. We decorate our homes, we put up the Christmas tree, we send cards and letters, we choose gifts for family and friends, we do our Christmas baking, we buy a turkey, we stock up for holiday visitors.
All of these activities bring us joy because they take us out of ourselves. Why do you think that Santa Claus always has a happy face? Because he spends the whole year making toys and he spends Christmas Eve delivering them to kids all over the world.
That’s the difference between joy and pleasure: joy takes us out of ourselves, pleasure does not. It’s no accident that joy can bring tears to our eyes: joy costs us, pleasure does not.
The mathematics of joy is the opposite of the mathematics of pleasure. The mathematics of pleasure is addition: if much is good, then more is better. But the mathematics of joy is subtraction: if much is good, then less is better.
And so we are afraid of joy. But, at the same time, we are looking for joy. And we all know where to find it. Joy is discovered in going out of ourselves and in giving ourselves to others. Joy is discovered not in receiving but in giving.
The stores know this. They know that we all want to give ourselves to others. And they are more than happy to help us empty ourselves.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent. And this Sunday’s theme is joy. In the first reading, the prophet Zephaniah tells us to rejoice. In the second reading, St. Paul tells us to rejoice. And in the gospel, John the Baptist shows us the way to joy.
John the Baptist is an unlikely advertisement for joy. He lives in the wilderness, he wears a garment of camel skin, he lives on locusts and wild honey, and he preaches a message of subtraction: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11).
At this time of the year, our thoughts turn to the poor. We support the various agencies that help the poor. But charity is not enough. The late Pope John Paul II wrote: “… the more that individuals are defenceless within a given society, the more they require the care and concern of others, and, in particular, the intervention of government authority” (Centesimus Annus, 10).
“… in particular, the intervention of government authority.” Individual acts of generosity are good, but they are not enough. Private benevolence is good, but it is not enough. Action by the government is necessary. And that means government programs such as medical insurance, Employment Insurance, Old Age Security, disability benefits, and social assistance.
These government programs, of course, cost money and the money has to come from somewhere. Where does it come from? It comes from the taxes we pay.
Nobody likes paying taxes. And nobody likes the taxman. Times haven’t changed. In today’s gospel, Luke tells us that “even tax collectors” came to John to be baptized.
We hear a lot of complaints these days about taxes. But paying taxes is a good idea. It’s even a godly idea. We care for the poor by paying taxes.
John the Baptist gives us a lesson in higher mathematics: the experience of joy is directly proportional to the cost. In other words, joy equals subtraction. And John walks the talk. When the people wondered if John might be the Messiah, he told them, “I am not.” He explained that the One who was more powerful than he was coming (Luke 3:16). There is no pretension, no self-promotion, no exaggerated sense of his own importance. Elsewhere John says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). There it is again: not addition but subtraction.
John the Baptist teaches us that joy is found not in becoming bigger but in becoming smaller. Joy is found in becoming a child again—not childish but childlike. The joy of Christmas is for kids—and for the child inside each of us.
There is a child inside each of us. The inner child is not dead, just buried under a load of self-preoccupation, under a load of worries and cares that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. “We start off walking and learn to run,” as the Carpenter’s sang in their 1971 hit We’ve Only Just Begun.
John the Baptist teaches us that joy is found not in becoming bigger but in becoming smaller. But John has something else to teach us about joy: joy lies in the future. John the Baptist looks beyond himself to the One who is coming after him.
No joy is complete. No Christmas gift will ever satisfy us completely. Why? Because we live in the magnetic field of the One who is coming. St. Augustine said it best: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we rest in Thee.”
Every joy is incomplete. There is no joy that is not tempered with a little sadness. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” No, Virginia, there is no perfect Christmas.