Have you ever heard of a winter Christian? A winter Christian is someone who believes in God, often very deeply, but whose experience of Christianity is defined more by struggle than by joy. These are often people who find the Faith to be a source of strength, a source of peace, at the core of their being, but who may not go so far as to say that the faith makes them joyful. Christianity might make them strong, to combat a sin that they just cannot shake or to undergo trials; or it might make them purpose in a shallow world, but it rarely makes them rejoice. I would count myself among this group.
I say all of this because I can think of no sweeter irony that preaching to Winter Christians on Gaudete Sunday, the day when the Church literally commands us to rejoice. (Side note: “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, Gaudete” the traditional opening antiphon for this Mass in Latin, is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and translates to “Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again rejoice!”)
So, fellow Winter Christians and all those who find the holidays less than joyful for whatever reason, what are we to do about this? Are we supposed to fake joy and plaster a half-hearted smile on our faces? NO! That is secular joy, shopping mall joy: joyful music, joyful decorations, joyful movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love that society is still getting so pumped up for a Christian holiday, but after a while secular joy feels so forced and frenetic. It’s like we’ve all agreed that for these 4 weeks we all have to be joyful OR ELSE, whether you feel it or not!
No, Christian joy is something altogether different, because Christian joy is rooted in Jesus Christ. Now, of course, there are a million different reasons to rejoice in Jesus Christ, but today is special because today the Church is presenting us with the image of Our Lord as the Greater Restorer. We rejoice because we are restored.
Imagine the world apart from God: ugly, broken, dry, sad. Our reading from Isaiah uses the image of a desert, which in the Biblical context means a harsh landscape of rocks and hills, with little soil or plant life. That is the world as we often experience it. But then, when God comes, Isaiah says that the desert will “bloom with abundant flowers and rejoice with joyful song”. Imagine that: a moonscape turning into a meadow, with trees and streams and birds singing sweet melodies. This is the stark transformation that God brings just by his very presence. Flower. Song. Restoration.
And what does Jesus offer to John as proof that the chosen one of God really has come among his people? “The bling regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” This is the restoration of humanity, the desert of our wretched state transformed into a flourishing wonderland. This is what God does: he heals. When he comes into the world, when he comes into our lives and our families, and our communities God brings with him healing and restoration and joy.
It is not for nothing that our reading from James compares the coming of the Lord to the coming of the rains. With him, the land remains dry and parched, but when he comes, it flourishes.
And yet, St. James also cautions us to be patient. Yes, the coming of the Lord is at hand! But St. James, like ourselves, lived on this side of the incarnation, this side of the actual coming of Jesus Christ into the world. He knows that Jesus came, but that the world still seems broken sometimes, that not everything is joy and ribbons and secular Christmas. He knows that the coming of Jesus is a process.
See Jesus came, he came into our world, he came into our hearts, and we live in him as a new creation. But Jesus is also like the rain, and his effect is slow. He must soak into the soil. He must be taken up by the roots and carried to every branch. Some day everything will be perfectly restored, and there will be a new heavens and a new earth, but that day has not yet come. We await it anxiously, this day of full restoration, but until then we must live in the tension of the already and the not yet. We must live in a world where sometimes it is hard to rejoice at Christmas, and that is okay.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord is a great restorer of all things. Ask for his presence, pray for his coming, and let him heal whatever is troubling you today.