Family traditions are important. These traditions not only form close family bonds, they also create memories that will last a lifetime.
My mother-in-law went home to be with the Lord some 14 years ago, but when she was with us, it was our tradition to gather at her house on Christmas Eve. We would celebrate Christmas together, share a wonderful meal and exchange Christmas gifts.
I would like to share with you, a true story of an event that took place at one of our traditional Christmas Eve celebrations. This event happened almost 50 years ago, but my family will always cherish the memory of that experience.
As per our family tradition, we had all gathered at my mother-in-law’s house on Christmas Eve. Our two oldest children were just 3 and 4 years old at the time. My brother-in-law and his family were also there, and his 2 children were the same age as ours. We had dinner and exchanged gifts, and all the kids had a wonderful time, spending the rest of the evening playing with all their new toys.
When it came time to pack up, we told the kids to get their toys together and get ready to go home. Well they were having way too much fun; and as you know, all kids have selective hearing. They hear only what they want to hear. Oblivious to our suggestion, they kept on playing. Sometimes, in order to get kids to listen, you have to repeat things many times. So again we said “Come on kids it’s time to go. We have to get home before Santa comes.” Again, not much response! “Come on kids. We have to go home. You do not want Santa to arrive and catch you still awake.”
I then proceeded to gather some things together, and carry them out to the car. I had parked the car on the street in front of her house. I carried some items out to the car, and I put them in the trunk. As I closed the trunk and turned to return to the house, a car pulled up and parked right across the street from me. To my surprise, Santa got out of the driver’s seat. He looked at me and said “Ho-Ho-Ho, Merry Christmas”. I shook his hand and asked where he was headed. Pointing to the house that was right next to my mother-in-law’s house, he said, “I am on my way to see the children in the house over there”. I then asked him if he could stop in and see the children in our house afterward, and he said, “Sure, I’d be glad to”. I told him that when he comes over, to just walk right in.
I returned to the house. All the kids were still playing with their new toys. I said “Come on kids; we’ve got to get going. Santa’s coming.” Finally, half heartedly, the kids slowly started to pack up their toys. After a few minutes, Santa walked through the front door and shouted, “Ho-Ho-Ho, Merry Christmas.” I wish you could have seen the reaction of those kids. It was priceless; a mixture of total hysteria, fear and absolute joy. Santa was great. He gathered the kids around him, talked with them for a while, and posed for a few pictures.
I couldn’t help but remember that event as I looked over the readings for the third Sunday of Advent; because the dominant theme in all three of those readings is joy.
When I was a lot younger, the third Sunday of Advent was called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice.” The special liturgical color for the third Sunday of Advent is rose. That’s why we light the rose colored candle on the advent wreath on that day.
In the first reading, Isaiah says, “In God is the joy of my soul. I am like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, or like a bride bedecked with her jewels.” Isaiah is overjoyed at being given the privilege of serving God and His people.
In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist is telling his listeners to get prepared because their Messiah is coming. In fact, His arrival is imminent.
You have to understand the fact that the people there in his audience were anticipating a Santa Clause. They were living under an oppressive Roman government. They were looking for, and expecting, a liberator, someone to free them from their oppressor and restore their nation to its former glory. John was, in fact, calling his listeners to attention, telling them to, not only prepare, but also rejoice, because their Messiah is already here, ready to walk through the door into their presence at any moment. John said, “There is one who is already among you whom you do not recognize, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” Get yourselves ready, be prepared and rejoice, for our long awaited Messiah is here.
Our kids were overjoyed when they saw Santa walk in through the front door at our family’s Christmas Eve celebration those fifty years ago. We also should be overjoyed at the coming of the Lord. In fact, we Christians have an obligation to rejoice, not just today in anticipation of our celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but always.
This command to rejoice is taken directly from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, our second reading for the third Sunday of Advent. In it, Paul commands his readers to, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks.”
To rejoice always is to share in, and be an active participant in, the joy that our Heavenly Father wishes for all of His children. To pray without ceasing does not mean that we are to be walking around saying prayers twenty four hours a day. Rather, we are to be continually conscious of God’s eternal presence within our heart. To give thanks in all circumstances is to form an attitude for living, knowing that God’s purposes for our life extend beyond our days here on earth. He is working for our eternal good. And, as Paul says, if we live a life conscious of God’s presence, we will also have the desire and ability to, “Test everything, retaining what is good and refraining from every kind of evil.”
There are those who will question Paul’s command to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances, citing all of the trials and tribulations of life. For those who entertain such thoughts, I ask them to pay close attention to what Paul said. Paul does not say to be thankful FOR all circumstances. He said to be thankful IN all circumstances. There is a big difference. To be thankful IN all circumstances is to say that no matter how terrible the situation in life might be, we believe, in the depth of our being, that God is always with us, giving us the power and ability to rise above the circumstances. Also, bear in mind that Paul’s statement is a positive command, applying to all times and all circumstances. It is not a conditional command to be kept only when things are going well. All Christians have an obligation to rejoice.
That may sound like I’m saying, “This is Christmas and you will enjoy it. That’s an order”. But Saint Clare of Assisi had a beautiful reply to those who questioned Paul’s command to rejoice always. She said, “Melancholy is the poison of devotion. When one is in tribulation, it is necessary to be even more happy and more joyful because one is nearer to God.”
There was an American author and motivational speaker, by the name of Leo Buscaglia, who was quite popular in the 1980’s. He died of a heart attack in 1998. He told a story of the day that his father arrived home from work announcing that he had just lost all his money. It seems that his business partner had run off with all of their company’s funds. After hearing the sad news, his mother went out and sold some of her expensive jewelry, and then bought some special foods and treats. She then prepared a special feast and celebration for the family. Some of their friends and relatives criticized her for recklessly spending so much at, what appeared to be, such an inappropriate time. But his mother replied by saying that, “The time for joy is now, when we need it most, not next week or next month or next year; but now.”
It is interesting to note the reaction of the Jewish people when Jesus did arrive on the scene. Their initial reaction was one of excitement and confusion, just like our young children reacted when Santa walked in through the front door during our Christmas Eve celebration. And when Jesus lived amongst them for a while, some began to doubt Him. Eventually some of the people totally disbelieved Jesus and rejected Him completely.
Similarly with us today, as we prepare to celebrate the birthday of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we profess a belief in His return. And just like those children of ours, yes we believe He is coming, but we’ve got lots of time. There is no need to rush and get all excited about it. But what if Jesus were to walk in through the front door of our Church today, and walk right down the center isle – right now? How would we respond? Just like those kids of ours, I believe there would be a mixture of hysteria, fear and joy.
It is vitally important that we remember the statement of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. John said, “There is one among you whom you do not recognize.” As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, we must remember that He is already here, living among us. He arrived in our hearts on the day of our Baptism, when we accepted Him as our personal Lord and Savior. He abides in the heart of every faithful child of God. Remember His words that are recorded for us at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus said, “Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20)
As we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christmas, may the joy that fills our heart be the light that brightens the lives of those around us.