‘What should we do?’ The people asked John the Baptist. It is a question we often ask, especially in times of anxiety, uncertainty or fear. John the Baptist and St. Paul suggest answers.
John the Baptist must have had a powerful presence because when he called those around him to account, many responded. He told them that judgment is coming; they must repent; they must change. And they responded – ‘tell us what we should do.’
His answer was not earth shattering, not impossible to achieve. To the crowd he said: you have two coats, give one to someone without one; give your surplus food to those who are hungry; in other words, share your blessings. To the tax collectors he said: take nothing more than is required by law; in other words be honest and fair. To the soldiers he said: do not be bullies or falsely accuse; in other words do not abuse your power. What should they do, what should we do? The answer is to live good moral and ethical lives. He does not ask them to try to become people they could not be. He called them however to become the very best they could be; living witnesses of God’s love and presence. We are challenged in the same way to be the very best we can be, living witnesses of Christ’s love and presence, whatever our vocation or location or crosses.
St. Paul’s answer to what should we do is to rejoice in the Lord always. When we are joyful in the Lord, we gain perspective. Too often this time of year the pressures of the culture or our own expectations separate us from seeing the beauty and blessings about which we ought to rejoice.
I was at the mall Christmas shopping a few years ago, trying to move quickly through the crowd. The number of shoppers made that impossible and I became impatient. ‘Let’s get moving people,’ I thought. ‘I have a lot to do.’ Then I looked at a family walking in front of me moving so slowly. There was a young one in a stroller bouncing up and down amidst the lights and colors. Another small child was pulling on the father’s hand pointing with excitement. Both had big smiles. They reminded me of the joy that should be part of this season. I was ashamed of my self-centered impatience. Children with their great simplicity anticipate the coming of the Lord at Christmas and so should we. Joy to the world, the Lord is coming, should be our song.
To be the very best we can be, living with joy this time of year, we also should keep gift-giving in perspective. Giving gifts as a sign of our love and appreciation is a beautiful part of the season. Yet for some it is a source of anxiety. Giving should bring joy, not simply relief at finding what was on someone’s wish list.
There was a cartoon some years ago showing two children watching the chaos of Christmas shoppers. One of them said something to the effect that once there was only one gift at Christmas enough for all, the Christ child, the savior of the world.
It is natural to wonder about the reality of his presence, given all that happening in the world, in our country, and in our personal lives. Wonderment and loneliness are real.
I remember when I was in seminary, a later vocation and feeling down. I was regretting having given up a prosperous profession as a lawyer and having traded my own comfortable house for one room and community meals. I shared this tale of woe with my best friend. What should I do, I was in a way asking. His response startled me: apparently you do not trust in the Lord who called you to this new life, he said. Rejoice in the Lord always even when it is hard, he reminded me. When we are joyful in the Lord, we gain perspective and the ability to cope with hope.
I read about a family in the military that was transferred to Spain in December, Christmas time. The mother of two was seven months pregnant. They packed up all their belongings including what would be needed for the new baby and shipped it all overseas. When the family reached Spain they discovered that their housing was not yet available. Then they learned that their luggage, including most of their clothes, was lost in transit. The mother went into premature labor and gave birth unexpectedly to twins. She wrote that she had never felt so overwhelmed and alone in her life. Then the word got out in the local Spanish community. Suddenly clothes and other items started to appear. A man stopped by and said that he and his wife had lost twins in childbirth, and wanted to share with her two cribs that were meant for their own. That family felt real joy that Christmas because the gifts were given and received not out of obligation but out of love and concern, by strangers being the best they could be. The gift we all receive at Christmas that of the Christ child should bring us a joy that we want to share with others, especially those in need.
Shortly after the restoration of this Cathedral was complete a seasoned priest from outside our diocese who had visited the great churches of the world related to me his experience when he walked into our restored Cathedral. He said his breath tightened, he stood in awe and felt the presence of the Lord here. To rejoice in the Lord is to be lifted up in awe to the love and mercy that is ours. What should we do? Forsake the pressures of our secular Christmas filled with stuff and kneel before our God who came, who comes and who will come again out of love for you and for me.
Our faith in Christ’s presence and trust in Christ’s promises make it possible for us to be the very best we can be and live our lives with joy because we know that Christ has already conquered the down side of the world. We will soon focus on the stable and his birth in Bethlehem, but in the background is Jerusalem and the cross, the empty tomb and his resurrection. He was born, died and rose out of love for us.
What should we do? John the Baptist tells us to repent and become the very best we can be, live lives of integrity. St. Paul answers: be confident in God’s love, rejoice in the Lord always. When we do these we can sing with the prophet Zephaniah in our first reading: ‘fear not, be not discouraged, the Lord your God is in your midst.’