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Vicar's Musings for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

23 December, 2012

Today at the 9.30am service we baptise Majur and Toma's child, Diing Mabor. It is a time of rejoicing for the family and for us all as a faith community. Last Sunday was Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday, from the opening words of the Latin introit to the mass and Philippians 4:4, "Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete" (Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice). I have to say, however, that every time I've read my newspaper or watched the news this week I've not felt much happiness. I've been reminded of last Friday's killing of 20 primary school children, the Principal, five adults, the gunman and his mother in Newtown, Connecticut. What joy can there possibly be in the midst of such tragedy?

The beginning of an answer perhaps lies in the great prophetic figure of John the Baptist, who is the focus of so many of our Advent readings and hymns. In fact John the Baptist, an ascetic and martyr who suffered terribly, is the patron saint of spiritual joy. You may recall that he leapt for joy in his mother's womb at the presence of Jesus and Mary (Luke 1:44) and that in John's gospel it says that he rejoices to hear the bridegroom's voice (John 3:29-30). Spiritual joy is a strange creature. It is very different from the joy we experience at the comedy festival or after having imbibed a glass too many at a Christmas party.

The Latin word gaudete is not far in meaning from the Greek word makarios that we translate as "blessed" or "happy." They are related elements of spiritual joy. Jesus opens his Sermon on the Mount by saying some really rather odd things: blessed (or happy) are the poor, blessed (or happy) are those who mourn, blessed (or happy) are those who are persecuted. Where is the joy in that? Michael Leunig the cartoonist knows something of this blessedness, this strange happiness, this spiritual joy. His cartoon "Seven Types of Ordinary Happiness" sums it up beautifully.

It is the same spiritual joy or happiness that I am sure you have experienced at some time in your life. Perhaps in the midst of grief or illness, or over Holy Week as we together journey into the dreadful pain and suffering of Jesus, and in the midst of that sadness mysteriously connect with the joy of Christ's resurrection. It is not an unrealistic optimism; it is a deep spiritual joy, a mystical happiness that is the gift of God even in the midst of anxiety and hurt. Finding God in the ordinary: the washing of dishes, contemplating the night sky, playing with the dog, or the kindness of a friend or stranger.

So may John the Baptist the patron saint of spiritual joy bless you on this last Sunday of Advent; may the peace of God enfold and protect those who suffer and all who have lost loved ones in tragic circumstances; and may we dig ever more deeply into the truth of St Paul's words: "Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete."

The Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster

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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.

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