Let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…

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(An earlier version of this post was written in Advent 2014, but has been significantly revised and reposted here in Advent 2020 to ask whether we can “Rejoice, always!” even in the time of Covid.)

Two days ago was “Stir-up” Sunday — an irreverent nickname some of us “Whiskeypalians” give the Third Sunday of Advent, based on the (pun intended) “stirring” words of the opening collect:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

A rose-colored candle in honor of Mary’s deep joy lights the way for the Third Sunday of Advent.

The more traditional name given “3 Advent” is Gaudete Sunday, from the first word of the introit of the Latin mass: “Gaudete Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete!…” or “Rejoice in The Lord always! Again, I will say, REJOICE!” That line comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil. 4:4), a young church he seemed to have particularly loved on the east coast of Greece. (The ALL CAPS are mine…not sure whether his shaky pen writing ancient Greek on papyrus did the same.)

Writing from a Roman prison, a remarkably emancipated Paul suggested to this fledgling flock of new believers, and maybe to all of us in 2020, that we should “Rejoice, always. Again I say, rejoice! …The Lord is at hand.” And in the same breath, he speaks of a “Peace of God that passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). On the one hand, it can be seen as an utterly absurd notion, especially in times like these. But for generations of Christians ever since, it has proven to be more than a notion and somehow utterly true.

The Third Sunday of Advent also traditionally recognizes and celebrates Mary and her deep joy, hence the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath now illumined in her honor. And so the question is posed: on this Gaudete Sunday or “Rose Sunday” or “Stir-up” Sunday in 2020, is it possible to “rejoice in the Lord, always”? How can we follow, in such a year of turmoil and disease and death, Paul’s admonition to embrace an ineffable Peace and the “bountiful mercy and grace” of a “stirred-up” Lord?

At the beginning of Advent, I would likely have seen such a call as too much. And still it may be.

Indeed, just this week our nation passed 300,000 dead from this ravenous virus. Three hundred thousand chairs at last year’s Christmas tables will now be as empty as the hearts of those loved ones having to stare at them. And yet, also this week, nearing the end of this loooooooong and dismal year, there seems to be actual news about which we can in fact rejoice.

Thanks be to God – and thousands of researchers, scientists, healthcare workers and tens of thousands of volunteers willing to be guinea pigs in dozens of studies worldwide — vaccines are here! There’s a long way to go of course, but now the hope that seemed so far off is (as Paul reminded the Philippians about The Lord) “at hand.” That glimmer of light at the end of the proverbial Covid tunnel does not appear to be a train coming in the opposite direction.

For sure, we have this year been “sorely hindered” as the collect says, “by our sins” of neglect or ignorance or arrogance or all of the above — and more. Especially when looking at this nation, I confess that a daily dose of 9/11-sized deaths has, I greatly fear, made me numb, asleep to something too horrible to contemplate. To truly fathom the ongoing loss is crippling, and so out of a survival protection mode, I change the channel or click the next link. I suspect I’m not alone.

The power of powerful prayers like Sunday’s “Stir up” collect can bring me back, though, as can hearing once again the paradoxical Truth of a real Peace that does in fact simply pass human understanding. My lawyer-brain’s inability to make sense of it fails to make the Reality of It any less true. To delve into such Mystery behind a stirred-up, Rose-colored Gaudete Sunday is to be able to withstand the pain of knowing that much of 2021 will be too much like 2020, especially in the beginning. Throughout it all, though, the “Gaudete Sunday” of 3 Advent bids us look for, and indeed rejoice in, the “bountiful grace and mercy” to “speedily help and deliver us,” from a “stirred-up” Lord that indeed is close “at hand.”

Gaudete Domino …Always!

And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding…

This has been the tried and true standard “go to” benediction of choice for generations. And for good reason. It is, after all, awfully hard to do better than Paul himself at his best.

This familiar phrase comes from the fourth chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians.  I have always found it somewhat odd that the writings of Paul seem to be at their most passionate, their most poignant, their most hopeful, when his situation seemed the most hopeless. At the time he wrote this affectionate “love letter” to the fledgling church in Philippi, Paul was in a Roman prison, an enemy of the most powerful government the earth had ever known. There was no earthly reason to be of good cheer. No earthly reason.

But as bound and broken and confined as Paul’s body might have been, his spirit was wonderfully and wondrously free. He gives to his friends in that small town on the east coast of Greece the rather silly advice to “Have no anxiety, about anything…” (Phil. 4:6.) Rather, he urges them to try a different approach, to simply pray about “everything,” and to “let your requests be known to God.”

If if they could but do that, says Paul, to honestly, fervently, deeply pray to our Loving Creator about their anxieties (and I can only imagine what all they had to be anxious about!) Paul promised them that a marvelous thing would happen:

And the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Centuries later, this “marvelous thing” has comforted and strengthened and sustained generations, and his words have become the fondest of parting wishes at countless worship services.

Two stories. Both true…

When I was three, my older brother died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 10. I remember Tommy a little, but not much. Blessfully (I think), I don’t remember anything about his death.

Decades later, after we had moved her into assisted living, my mom and I were having a very rare conversation with about Tommy’s death. I shared with her that I had long wondered how she even functioned after losing her first-born. How did she and my dad go on, not just to survive after Tommy’s sudden death, but to raise that beautiful boy’s younger sister, younger brother (me), and two more sisters yet to be born?

“How did you do it, Mom?” I asked her. “I don’t know, Michel,” she told me, “I really don’t… What I remember is this phrase kept coming back to me. Over and over, I kept hearing the phrase, ‘The Peace of God that passes all understanding…’  PEACE. God’s peace. Beyond understanding. Over and over…”. She looked off in the distance for a second.

And then she looked right at me, and I never will forget what she said. “And I wrapped that phrase around me like a cloak!”

Somehow, some way, it got her through.

My Dad's notes in Philippians.
My Dad’s notes in Philippians

Second story. I’ve written in this blog before about the day my Dad died. The part I left out occurred the next day, when the Rector of my parents’ parish was scheduled to come by to talk about Dad’s funeral, and the scripture and hymns we might select. As it so happened, I had read that “Peace of God” passage from Philippians just a few weeks earlier as a lector at my home church (and had heard Buechner lecture on it the previous year).  I thought maybe my dad might approve, so I ventured back to my folks’ bedroom and eventually found my Dad’s Bible. (Folks that knew him well would not be surprised to learn it was rather dusty.) I flipped my way back to the fourth chapter of Philippians.

And there — circled and underscored, with arrows and squiggly lines for emphasis — was that very passage I was seeking.  In my dad’s very distinctive handwriting, he had penned the entire four verses on the opposite page.

I’m not sure such things pass all human understanding. I’m damn sure that it passes mine.