Sunday, December 16, 2012

3rd Sunday of Advent (C)
Pats on the Back & Kisses on the Cheek

Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18; Isaiah 12; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
Picture: cc katerha

Sisters and brothers, do you know the difference between a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek? You know, of course, what a pat on the back feels like. Once in a while, for example, one of you kind parishioners will come up to me after Mass and say, Thank you, Father. That was a lovely celebration. How do you think that makes me feel? Happy, of course! That’s what a pat on the back can do. It produces joy. But notice what this joy is like. Although I feel happy that someone has paid me a compliment, my attention isn’t really on that person. It is, instead, on me. On my own achievement. I’m happy to know that I did well. That I led a lovely celebration. Well done, Fr. Chris! Kudos to me!

And what if I want to experience this joy again? Well, I’ll just have to make sure that I keep on doing well. Keep on providing lovely celebrations. But my efforts, of course, won’t always be successful. Being human, it’s quite inevitable that I’ll slip up from time to time. And perhaps even more often than that. I may chant in the wrong key, for example. Or lead the congregation in reciting the Gloria–as I did last week–when we’re not supposed to do so in Advent. I remember also the time, at this very altar, when I accidentally let the incense burner tip over. Scattering hot coals all over the sanctuary floor. Right in the middle of Mass. I recall the look of horror the altar server gave me. Big mistake! No lovely celebration for the congregation that day. No pats on the back for me... What happens to my joy then?

Thankfully pats on the back are not the only way to produce joy... My mother has a dog named Chacko. Whenever I visit her, he will come to the gate to greet me. And he’s always happy to see me. He’ll be wagging his tail vigorously. Jumping up and down excitedly. And if I bend over to pet him, he may even spring up to give me a kiss on the cheek. Now, how do you think I feel? Happy, of course! In fact, my encounters with Chacko are often the highlight of my day.

Like my conversation with the appreciative parishioner after Mass, this too is a joyful experience. But with one significant difference. You see, Chacko doesn’t care whether or not I led a lovely celebration at Mass. It doesn’t make a difference to him, even if I did spill hot coals all over the floor that day. He’s just happy to see me, period. And seeing him so happy fills me with joy. A joy that’s quite independent of my success or failure. A joy that remains even when I may mess things up or fall short of expectations. I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I think this feeling is quite different from the one I get upon receiving a compliment. One kind of joy depends on my performance. My living up to expectations. The other doesn’t. And isn’t this a key difference between a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek?

It’s important for us to keep this difference in mind, especially because today is Gaudete Sunday. And our Mass texts are all about joy. The entrance verse urges us to rejoice in the Lord always. In the opening prayer, we asked that we might attain the joys of salvation. In the first reading, Israel is told to shout for joy. To exult with all her heart. And, in the second reading, St. Paul tells the Philippians that he wants them to be happy. Always happy in the Lord. Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure about you. But I am not always pleased to hear these words. Rather than console me, these beautiful texts sometimes make me feel even more burdened than I already am. Hearing them, I may ask myself, well, how joyful am I really? Probably not that much. Not enough to shout aloud. And if I’m not as joyful as all Christians are supposed to be, then... oh, no! There must be something wrong with me? I must be falling short. What more should I do?

And yet, notice how, when I approach the Mass texts in this way, I’m thinking of joy as something that I achieve. My focus remains only on me. On my performance. On what I need to do. The joy I’m seeking is not unlike the kind I get when I receive a pat on the back. I want to do well so that God will reward me. Compliment me. Tell me I did a good job. I want to know what I can do to rejoice in my own performance. But that’s quite different from what our Mass texts are inviting us to do. For they do not tell us to rejoice in ourselves. To shout for joy at our own excellence. Our own goodness. Our own perfection. No. Quite to the contrary. The call is to rejoice not in ourselves, but in God. And to do so all the time. Rejoice in the Lord always.

But how does one rejoice in this way? The first reading shows us how. And it does this, not so much by telling us exactly what we need to do, as much as by reminding us what God has done, and is doing, on our behalf. The Lord has repealed your sentence, we’re told, he has driven your enemies away. The Lord is in your midst; you have no more evil to fear. As marvellous as all this sounds, the reading goes even further. Not only does the prophet remind us of the wonderful things God does on our behalf, it goes on to describe for us a very moving scene. An image of how our God rejoices over us. The Lord will exult with joy over you, we’re told. He will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival. What do you think, sisters and brothers? What must it feel like to experience God dancing for joy over us? Over you and me? Dancing for joy, for no other reason than that God delights in us. In you and in me. Surely the feeling must be one of joy. A joy that’s perhaps not so different in quality from what one experiences when greeted enthusiastically by a friendly dog at the gate. A joy that depends not on us, but on the One who rejoices over us. A joy that comes less from a pat on the back, than from a kiss on the cheek.

All of which may help us to understand a little better the words of John the Baptist. In the gospel, he tells us about two different kinds of baptism. There is the kind that John brings. A baptism with water. And then there is the kind that Christ the Lord brings. A baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. What is the difference between these two? Perhaps it is not unlike the difference between a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek. One kind remains only at the level of our own performance. It can only tell us what we must do. But can’t quite provide us the strength with which to do it. The other kind goes far beyond the first. It allows us to experience the Lord rescuing us in our weakness. Rejoicing over us in our struggles. Cherishing and challenging us. Strengthening us to do all the things that we ought to do.

And isn’t this the kind of joy that we need more than ever. Especially when we find ourselves living in a world that often seems filled with much danger and uncertainty and injustice. A world in which 20 innocent young schoolchildren and 6 teachers can suddenly lose their lives at the hands of a lone gunman. A world that often gives us little reason to pat ourselves on the back. Yet, in a world such as this, perhaps it remains possible for us to experience deep joy. If only we learn to shift our attention away from ourselves and onto God. Allowing God to rejoice over us and to comfort us. To reassure us and to move us to action.

Sisters and brothers, today is Gaudete Sunday. How ready are we to allow the Lord to kiss us on the cheek today?


  1. The JOY of the LORD is my STRENGTH.

    May we dare to trust God to continue His Work in us.

    May we learn to allow the Lord to express His affection for us in His own way and time.

    May we learn to dwell in God's love - to live and move and have our being in a God who delights in each of us, always.

    Peace & All Good

  2. Have I open my heart to welcome him into it, like both Mary and Elizabeth, to genuinely receive the peace and joy and the love that Lover is going to present to me? Have I place my trust in him without any reservations? If I have faith, hope in Him, DO I have love and Charity even to my neighbors?

  3. What a graced moment to discover that: despite messing up and failing to live up to my self-imposed perfectionist standards (which few can follow), I am not destroyed. In fact, I become more human, and empathise with those deemed to be failures or not-good-enough through my lens of perfectionism.

    What a graced moment to realise that I can laugh at myself when I fall short, feel humbled or humiliated, and say, "What did you expect? I am human after all!"

    And my human self is the part of me who can allow God and neighbour to come close with a much longed-for kiss on the cheek versus my relentless striving for an occasional pat on the back.

    What joy to give myself the permission to stumble, tumble and fall like a toddler, and land in the loving arms of God who does not measure me by my achievements, but who delights in the relationship we share.

    What a gift to have a human friend who sees me through the eyes of God (or my ever faithful dog), who accepts me for the imperfect person that I am. Then I can relax and stop trying to live up to my own impossible standards, and join in the dance of joy this season.


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