In the midst of a pandemic year, can we heed the Apostle Paul’s words to “rejoice always?”. It is possible if we remember that Jesus is near and that nothing can separate us from his love.
The cover of Time magazine that just came out, dated December 14th, has 2020 written in black with a big red X over it and the caption, “The Worst Year Ever.” When I saw that I wondered how many people would agree with that: 2020, The Worst Year Ever.
On the news, one person said that she had used all her savings to start a restaurant, then the pandemic hit almost right away. I can see that, for her, this year could easily be the worst year ever. We have seen wildfires. If we lost our home and everything in it, this could be
the worst year ever.
But I kept going back to the word “ever.” Would we say this year was the worst ever if we had lost loved ones last year? I thought of my mother. She had a baby, me, only five months before the Korean War started. She became a widow when she was only 18, and had
to flee her home with me and had to find a job to support herself and me in a new city, crowded with people who also fled the war zone. At one point, my mom and I had a conversation about hell, and she said that war is hell and that nothing can be worse than that. For her, this year would not have been the worst year ever.
But, then, there are people who own companies like Amazon, Walmart, and Target. This year these companies made more profit than any other year. For them, this year might be the best ever.
Our lives are such that although we live in the same period, the same town, the same street, even in the same household, what we experience can be very different. Within my family, I have a nephew who is actually doing better during this pandemic because he no longer has a long commute to his work. Four days out of a week, he now works from home. He is saving time and gas.
But then, there is his father’s aunt. She had a plan to retire to the Philippines so she had shipped her things to the Philippines, leaving only what she needed to carry in her suitcases. As she was about to leave, travel to the Philippines was banned because of COVID-19. So, now she
is living with my sister’s family until the travel ban is lifted—waiting.
Before Thanksgiving, I heard from a daughter of my former church member who said that she was depressed because for the first time in 65 years of her life, she could not celebrate Thanksgiving with her mother who is in a nursing home. Then I heard again from her recently, and this time she expressed joy because she had seen her mother the Sunday before through the window and they sang Christmas carols together. She wrote that even though she could not hear her mother’s voice, she could see her mother’s lips moving, and she could tell that her mother knew all the words. She wrote that it was a miracle. She was saying that because her mother had lost the use of half of her body due to a stroke.
I was very glad to hear the joy in her email.
Whether or not we think that 2020 is the worst year ever, COVID-19 definitely has affected our lives and made us appreciate a lot of things we took for granted—something as simple as eating a meal together, giving a hug, or a visiting family and friends. Advent, the time the Church observes as waiting for the coming of Jesus—both his birth and the second coming—seems to be overshadowed by our waiting for the vaccine.
But then, I wondered how significant Advent had been to us before this pandemic. An elderly United Methodist man said that the church he attended when he was young did not observe Advent. I also do not recall observing Advent when I was going to church during my
high school years in Sarasota, Florida. So, I decided to do some research on the Internet.
Here is a short summary of what I found.
Usually Advent starts near the end of November, after Thanksgiving. We do not know the exact year that the Church started to observe Advent, but it may have started in France or Spain and it could be as far back as the late fourth century to early fifth century and as much as a hundred years or more after the Church started to celebrate Christmas. That is, observing Christmas definitely came before the Church came up with the idea of Advent.
Initially Advent was more of a period of preparation for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, which was a day when converts were baptized. The preparation was similar to Lent that we know it today, with an emphasis on prayer and fasting. Gradually, the Church moved away from this practice and formalized Advent as “a period of spiritual preparation for Christmas.” And, about the ninth century, “the Church designated the first Sunday of Advent as the beginning of the Church year.”
One of the visual symbols related to Advent is the wreath which was borrowed from the German Lutherans in the early 1500s. The circle symbolizes the eternity of God’s plan for salvation—no beginning or end, and our hope to share eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Although we now have wreaths made out of plastic more than using fresh branches, originally making it with fresh branches was a symbol of Christ coming to give us new life through His passion, death, and resurrection. The third Sunday of Advent, which is today, is called Gaudete Sunday; gaudete means rejoice in Latin. The candle we light is pink, symbolizing joy, and we are to rejoice because our preparation is now half-way finished (catholicstraightanswers.com).
But then, I had to ask myself, can we feel joy this Sunday if we have not been on a journey of spiritual preparation especially when we are in the midst of the pandemic? I wondered how many of us have made the beginning of Advent as the start of spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus? Hasn’t the beginning of Advent, which comes after Thanksgiving, become more about buying and sending gifts, cards, and decorating our homes?
Personally, the only time I truly felt that I was preparing for something during Advent was my second year as a pastor in Harrisonburg in 2006. That year our church decided to make luminaries representing the number of U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq. We made 2,969 luminaries, and this project involved not only our church members but also people from the community. Those luminaries were made, placed on the lawn of the church, and lit with love on Christmas Eve. Seeing the lights from those luminaries made me feel that although these soldiers were not with us any more in body, their souls were shining for us, reminding us on that night, indeed, we need the prince of peace to come on earth.
Over the years, some people have dreaded the Christmas season because it made them feel lonelier and more depressed. An estimated 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, often referred to as “Holiday Blues” (presbyterianmission.com). Because of
that, some churches provide Blue Christmas services.
This year, a new term “Covid blues” has surfaced. The New York Times reported that “pandemic-weary Americans seek solace,” in buying live Christmas trees. Sales of live trees have doubled in some places. One man said that he and his roommate bought a live tree trying to keep the spirit going (NY Times, Dec 6, 2020).
A Florida business man was in the news because he paid off the utility bills of his neighbors, 114 families, who were at risk of having their utilities shut off (CNN, Dec 10, 2020). He said he did it because he was once down on his luck and was now giving back.
I think these two examples fit the two definitions of rejoice I found on the Internet. I learned that rejoice is one of those verbs that can be both intransitive and transitive. Because of that, it has two definitions.
You might know the difference between a transitive and intransitive verb, but I forgot and had to look it up. A transitive verb is one that exerts its action on an object. Examples: John runs a restaurant. Did you wash your hands? I wrote a letter. An intransitive verb does not tell who or what received the action of the verb. Examples. Agree, cry, talk, work, yell.
The intransitive definition of rejoice is “to feel or to show great joy or delight.” We could say, “The two roommates rejoiced when they bought a live tree.” The transitive definition of rejoice, according to Marriam-Webster dictionary is “to give joy to.” Apparently, this use of rejoice is no longer practiced, but I thought the business man helping his neighbor fit the definition of “to give joy to” because the business man “gave joy to his neighbors.”
The problem with Apostle Paul saying, “Rejoice always,” was not rejoicing, but rejoicing always. Is it possible for us to rejoice always? Can anyone rejoice always? My initial reaction was definitely no. We are told even Jesus wept (John 11:35). Then, I thought perhaps it all
depends on how we interpret the word “always.”
One pastor said that Apostle Paul used the word “always” as a form of hyperbole, an exaggerated statement, not to be taken literally. Don’t we also do that? At times, it can get us into trouble. I remember the time when Dave and I came to talk with Pastor Earl before our wedding. When I asked him what advice he could give us, he said that we should avoid saying “always.” Basically, he was saying that we should not say, “You always do this and that,” when we are upset with each other and that we should only talk about the current incident that is
So, was Apostle Paul using the word “always” as hyperbole? One commentator pointed out that the word rejoice is found more than two dozen times in Paul’s letters. One that is more familiar to us is probably Apostle Paul’s letter to Philippians verses 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” The key is “in the Lord.”
We need to remember that Apostle Paul wrote his letters to churches that were having difficult times. For example, the Thessalonians were being persecuted because they were Christ followers. More importantly, Apostle Paul firmly believed that the second coming of Jesus was imminent. Because of that, Apostle Paul himself was able to rejoice even when he was imprisoned. To Apostle Paul, these persecutions were signs that the coming of Jesus was very near. Thus, he was able to say, “Hang in there and rejoice! Because it is the sign that the coming of our Lord is imminent.” We could say that Apostle Paul was writing to churches who were experiencing the night, but reminding them the morning is very near.
So, what about us? The first letter of Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians is dated the year 51, almost two thousand years ago. Can we rejoice? Can we rejoice always when we have yet to experience the second coming of Jesus? Probably because questions like this came up even
when the apostles were still alive, Apostle Peter wrote, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
Each year, we are gaining more knowledge about the universe we live in. Often, we act as though we now have all the answers. But I wonder what God thinks about us. When God looks at us, perhaps our knowledge is nothing more than a grain of sand in the universe.
I hope one of the positive outcomes of this pandemic will be knowing with our whole being that our lives are truly interconnected and our actions, even those as insignificant as wearing a mask, can affect the lives of others. This could be the year that starts us on the road to restoring the true meaning of Christmas. We can re-examine the traditions and practices we have inherited and restore some and discard some, to help us become better followers of Christ.
Indeed, we would be able to rejoice always when we are truly in the Lord. Because, when we are in the Lord, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. When we are in the Lord, we would be able to love our neighbors as ourselves.