The novelist George Bernanos once asked the question, 'What is the opposite of a Christian people?' It is not hard to think of some answers. I can think of a few---like a pagan people, a hypocritical people, a merciless people, etc. The readings for this second Sunday in Advent give a better clue.
We hear from the prophet Baruch, 'Take off your dress of sorrow and distress.'
We hear from the psalmist, 'What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad.'
We hear from St. Paul, 'I pray for all of you, I pray with joy, remembering how you helped spread the Good News.'
We hear from the Gospel of St. Luke, 'And all shall see the salvation of God'.
Bernanos said that the opposite of a Christian people is a sad people. A sad people! What would be the point? What news would there be for us to celebrate, as does Baruch? What news would there be for us to sing about, as does the psalmist? What news would there be for us to spread, as does St. Paul and the people of Philippi? What news would there be for us to proclaim to the whole world, as does St. Luke? Why turn God's good news into bad news or sad news?
Next Sunday is Gaudete Sunday, 'Rejoice' Sunday, but this year the Lectionary gives us a head start on rejoicing in Advent. That is as it should be. Our joy as Christians cannot be contained. It must not be restrained. The penitential always gives way to the salvific. That's the only point of our penance: to make our path straight for rejoicing, to liberate us from the sadness.
Sadly, I think the penance, the preparation Advent most demands of us Christians these days is to learn anew to be joyful and to learn again to share our joy with others. Please! Christians! Your joy is what's demanded of you -- instead of all that plaintive sermonising against the commercialisation and materialism of the secular Christmas or all that anxious news commentary on how stressful a time Christmas is for people.
Christians cannot oppose the world's misdirected 'spirit of Christmas' with some kind of sober sadness or any kind of preaching guilt-trip. They must oppose it with their joy.
What is the source of our joy? Exactly the good news being celebrated, sung, spread and proclaimed in our readings: God has come to be with us. And God shall come again so that we may be with him forever. And not only us, for 'all shall see the salvation of God'. This is no mere clap-trap, no happy-clappy God delusion. It's not any 'spirit' of Christmas, it is Christmas.
We Christians are not unaware of or untouched by the sadness, the suffering and the pain in human lives. Sorrow and distress are not absent from our wardrobes. We don't so much hide it away as we put all that in its proper place. And it is not that our faith does not motivate us to make our world a better place. We can ask, as anyone might, why, despite the best efforts of men and women of good will, there is still war, hunger, sickness, loneliness and all manner of sorrow in our world, but we cannot say, as others might, that God does not know or that God does not care.
In Christ Jesus God has manifested the depth of his care for us. God is with us and God want us to be with him forever.
For some that's not enough. Perhaps they want Father Christmas to bring them other gifts. Don't begrudge or bescrooge those who have a different wish list this Advent and Christmas. Respect those who don't see the Father's gift of his Son as the greatest of all gifts. But since we Christians believe that it is, we must show it. We must show ourselves to be the very opposite of a sad people. We must make St. Paul's words our own: 'Every time I pray for all of you, I pray with joy...'