Dear Sisters and Brothers,

“Merry Christmas”, “cheers mate”, “have a good one”. We hear a lot of that around this time of the year. Well, “’Tis the season to be merry” and all that. But truly, what is Christmas joy, Christian joy and happiness? Believe it or not, John the Baptist is the patron saint of spiritual joy. After all, at the presence of Jesus and Mary, he leapt for joy in his mother’s womb. And the Gospel says that he rejoices to hear the bridegroom’s voice.

I want you to be happy – What I want is your happiness…
Shout for joy – rejoice, exult with all your heart…
Sing and shout for joy…

Just pop into the local shopping centre; the place is packed. And everyone is moving around at a feverish pace, with a grim look of determination on their face. Some people, as they move through Sainsbury’s or wherever take on the appearance of a robot or a zombie – eyes staring in front, hand goes out as they pass a packet of mince pies, a box of crackers, another jar of cranberry sauce, some sage and onion stuffing, and automatically it picks it up and places it into the trolley, without a thought. Well, you never know, we might run out, and we can’t have that. Endless lists of things to buy, presents to acquire, cards to send, more jobs to be done. It seems to be never ending, just as you think that you’ve sent all your cards another one drops through the letterbox! It’s leading to near exhaustion, almost despair.

A feeling of expectancy had grown among the people.

Yes, there’s a difference between the happiness that Zephaniah, the psalmist and Paul are talking about and the intoxicated happiness that is being portrayed all around us – over-drinking, over-eating, making a fool of yourself. There’s a difference between the manic desire to buy up the whole of the supermarket shelves and stuff them into your freezer so that you are prepared to stay in and eat, drink, party and sleep yourself brainless for a few days over the holidays, there’s a big difference between that and the feeling of expectancy that had grown among the people of the Gospel.

So, what’s the difference? Or to put it in the words of the Gospel today – what must we do?

John tells us in no uncertain terms what we must do; we must change our way of living and behaving, we must repent in other words. For some of us it will mean learning to share the surplus we have with others who are less fortunate. Yet again, it will mean stopping corrupt behaviour which affects others. Suddenly happiness, joy become centred not in me, in number one, but in others. Unless we do justice we will not find peace and we will not be able to rejoice. This is the first difference.

Also the readings give us a very good clue along the same lines; our peace and contentment lie beyond us; it is only when we become involved in other’s lives, and ultimately in the life of the One who is totally Other, God himself, that we can have an inkling of real happiness. Only he can truly fulfil the feeling of expectancy that is deep down within us all. As we watch for the day, the day of the Lord’s coming at the end of time, and as we prepare to remember the day of his first coming in flesh, we also become aware that he came to establish his Kingdom in us and in the world. It is within that kingdom and by participating in establishing that Kingdom that we find our happiness: A Kingdom of truth and life, a Kingdom of holiness and grace, a Kingdom of justice, love and peace.

 Maranatha – Come Lord Jesus!

Yours in blessed hope,

Terence Patrick Bishop of Middlesbrough

To be read and made available on the Weekend of December 15/16 2018, Third Sunday of Advent, in all churches and chapels of the diocese