3rd Sunday of Advent (C)
Do you realize how precious you are?
Before the collective eye rolling begins, I want to suggest that pondering this question is far more important than fretting about the state of the world. So let me ask again: do you realize how precious you are?
I’m serious, and so are the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent. And so is Pope Francis, who inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Mercy this past week, on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council.
So, do you realize how precious you are? Maybe? Sometimes? Not often? Me neither. But I should. I know it is true, every hair on my head [LK 12:7], yet I resist it. I resist saying it aloud. It feels awkward, and I know I’m not alone; I belong to a race of creatures who thrive on a diet of self-loathing and unworthiness.
Some might object, saying, if we were that precious why would God allow us to do harm to one another and to the earth? Really? Is the mess human beings have made of our world God’s fault? Every day, throughout the world, men and women inflict their feelings of imperfection, envy and greed onto others. Sometimes the damage is minute, a petty argument, a grudge. Other times it is harmful, violent, and as we know all too well, deadly. Would we do these things, or allow others to do them if we lived in a state of awareness of how deeply God loves us? Think about it. The condition of the world and our collective anxiety over it is a symptom of our lack of self-knowledge.
This idea of self-knowledge, and the lack thereof came to me earlier this week as I reflected on the words of the Prophet Zephaniah in the first of this weekend’s readings.
“Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” [Zeph 3:14]
Meanwhile, I was berating myself for having picked up the axe of frustration from an online commentary the day before, swinging it in the direction of some point I desperately felt I needed to make. In doing so, I almost nicked the tender shoot I vowed to nurture in my heart this Advent season.
The words of the Prophet leapt off the page:
“The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.” [Zeph 3:17-18]
God will sing joyfully, because of us? We’re not talking about God humming a happy tune here; the text says God is going to sing as one sings at festivals, for us. On stage, with a backup band, and a laser light show. (Okay, the text doesn’t say that.)
The word of God came to the Prophet Zephaniah as he witnessed the deplorable state of his nation; he foresaw the Day of the Lord looming and painted a bleak picture of the fate of Jerusalem’s enemies. However, the prophecy concludes with a joyful foretelling of the end of the Babylonian exile when the Judahites would return to Jerusalem; he promises renewal, forgiveness, salvation and an assurance that the Lord’s dwelling place would be amongst them. No more fear, the Lord is here!
Who is not comforted by the thought of an almighty Savior who not only rejoices in our reunion but who also dwells among us? If only we understood this is our reality.
Our creator is in love with us: powerfully, unabashedly, unconditionally, over-the-moon in love with us. All of us. Every single one of us.
How do we know this? Through grace-filled, revelatory interactions with others, through the unceasing and rejuvenating gifts of the earth, through the persistence of hope that breaks through despair and dwells in the depths of our hearts, and through our compulsion to work for a just and peaceful world.
If every human being—irrespective of belief— allowed their thoughts and actions to be guided by the knowledge of his or her belovedness, preciousness, singular, irreplaceable value, and exquisite human beauty, the resulting surge of love would extinguish all hatred from the world. It would be abundantly clear that all that matters in the world is already in our possession. Not only would each person’s self-knowledge be changed, but the entire world would be transformed with it.
With this understanding heeding the advice of John the Baptist in today’s gospel [LK 3:10-14] becomes as natural as breathing. We act from a place of self-knowledge when we recognize our abundance, share what we have with others, practice mercy, and turn away from deadly lies and destructive acts
In an interview with Italian Jubilee Publication ‘Credere’ published December 3, 2015, Pope Francis said, “The revolution of tenderness is what we have to cultivate today as the fruit of this Year of Mercy: God’s tenderness towards each one of us. Each one of us must say: “I am an unfortunate man, but God loves me thus, so I must also love others in the same way.”” Our attention to the needs of the world begins when we open our hearts to the reality that God loves us so.
In those fleeting moments of grace when we can grasp the depth of God’s love, God rejoices with us. Have you felt it? I am reminded of the chest-crushing gratitude I experienced as a young mother for the privilege of raising my daughters. Perhaps you have caught glimpses of it in your day-to-day activities: you witness an unexpected act of great generosity on your way to work; or, you perceive another person’s sorrow and silently lift a portion of it onto yourself; or, in your classroom you observe a friendship forming between one lonely student and another; or, you witness a crime, injustice or searing poverty and know you are called to do something about it. You suddenly see that people are good, singularly unique, interconnected, and precious.
In as many ways as there are stars in the universe, these and other instances of profound human love, of selfless giving, of giving oneself over to a stranger without thought, of gracious receiving, or in offering mercy over judgement, our value as God’s precious and beloved ones is revealed to us. We are treasured more than the greatest pearl, than all the riches of the world. In those seconds of clarity, it feels as if the divine spark hidden in our depths is charged by the flame of the Holy One who burns for us always. It is the Oh Wow of divine sight.
St. Paul wrote to the Philippians “The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phil 4:5c-7]
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding compels us to acts of mercy. God’s precious creation should not live in fear, amidst violence and pollution. God’s precious creation should not inflict pain or seek to destroy others. A lack of love—an inability to love—signals a lack of self-knowledge. Knowledge of one’s belovedness is the condition for love.
God sings, “Do you realize how precious you are to me?”