THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT – cycle B
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” I Thess. 5:16
In Aesop’s fables, there is a story entitled Momus and the Gods.
In shortened form, the story goes like this: three of the ancient Greek gods were arguing about who could make something truly good. Zeus made the most excellent of all mammals, a human; Athena made the most excellent of all dwellings, a house; and Poseidon made the most excellent of all animals, a bull.
A character named Momus was then selected to judge the competition and declare a winner.
The plot thickens when Momus decides to find fault with all three of them: he criticized the bull for not having eyes under his horns to let him take aim when he gored something; he criticized the house because it had not been built with iron wheels at its base so it could be moved from place to place; and finally he criticized the creation of humans for not having been given a window into their hearts so others could see what they were really thinking.
None was declared a winner. Needless to say, the gods were not amused. But that’s the subject of another story.
The moral of this one is: nothing is satisfactory to someone who is a “Momus.” In Greek mythology, then, a Momus became someone who was the personification of the constant critic, the fault-finder, the ultimate blamer.
St. Paul has often been portrayed in somewhat the same fashion. He’s frequently been viewed as a negative corrector of people’s morals, a scold, or, as one writer puts it, “a cranky, grumpy prude.” Or, to put it still another way, a Momus.
And yet, listen to him in today’s second reading: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
Doesn’t sound much like a Momus to me.
In all fairness, it’s important to understand that today’s reading from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians is not only the earliest of all Paul’s letters ever written, it is also the earliest text in all the New Testament! It was published sometime around 50 AD, some 20 years after the death of Jesus, and predates all the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles by some 30-40 years.
In other words, almost the first words out of Paul’s mouth speaking about the story of Jesus of Nazareth were ones that demonstrated nary a hint of being a Momus. Instead, they strongly emphasized joy, enthusiasm, praise for the wonderful reception of the gospel on the part of the people receiving the letter, and even calls the people of Thessalonia an “example to others.”
Right from the very beginning, then, Paul develops a triad of Christian practices that are perfect for our Advent time of preparation:
To be sure, none of this enthusiasm is in any way to discount the tragedies of life or the terrible sadness that is endured by so many throughout the world.
Nor did Paul mean to do that either. Remember: the people of Thessalonia who received this letter were living under the brutal, savage heel of the Roman Empire. Most of them were slaves. Others were free, but uneducated and impoverished and onerously taxed.
Paul was not intending to turn a blind eye to the reality of their suffering, or to any we may be undergoing now.
What he wanted to do instead was to point to something deeper, something richer, something more vital and intense, and something more lasting: the reality of the God of Jesus.
In the midst of that reality, what he wanted to accomplish was to help people find the hope that their eyes could be lifted from their places of pain and be directed to a loving trust in the awareness that God is at work in the world, that God is present in the midst of whatever suffering they are enduring, and that God is hearing the voice of those who live in tears and heartache.
That, in fact, is where the joy begins – and the prayer – and the gratitude.
Joy, prayer and gratitude – they’re all connected. Each of these virtues supports the other two in a kind of spiritual interplay: prayer awakens gratitude; gratitude leads to joy; and joy moves us back to prayer.
But the first of these is joy.
That’s why today is celebrated in the Church as “Gaudete Sunday,” a Latin word meaning “rejoice.”
That’s also why Momus, the famous critic, will not be invited to the celebration. He, and those like him, will discover that there is simply no room for them at this inn.
Because today is about only three things:
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks.”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.