Much of the planning is already done. Advent has arrived. The music has been selected — an inviting blend of old familiar hymns and a variety of newer songs not yet old enough to be traditional. The candles are arranged in the front and the other Christmas décor will soon makes its way out of storage and into our sanctuary. Our art team’s contribution, a canvas tent and mini campsite, is decorated with pictures our congregation has taken from their home and work neighborhoods, an attempt on our part to visualize this year’s theme of Jesus “tenting” among us or, as Peterson described it, “moving into our neighborhood.”
As all the details and plans have swirled around, mingling with the ongoing sermon preparation, I have also been making my way through Pope Francis’ first exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel. This document is a call for Christians everywhere to reengage the biblical call of evangelization. While I recognize there is some controversy already about the Pope’s “attack on capitalism” within the document, his starting place, calling for personal renewal in relationship to Jesus, and his direction, a recommitment to being an evangelizing people, are quite encouraging
One paragraph in particular has caught my attention in the context of all our holiday worship preparations. In section I.24, Pope Francis describes an evangelizing community. There is much to appreciate in this paragraph. He ends that section with these words:
Finally an evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates at every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy, as part of our daily concern to spread goodness. The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of her renewed self-giving.
Pope Francis has me wondering about what it might look like for us to be an evangelizing community like he’s describing here. At the moment, I find myself with several clusters of questions and would love to hear how these are working their way out in your communities.
First, “The evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always.” This time of year, we know how to celebrate. Many of us put together festive celebrations from seniors’ dinners to youth group Christmas parties to plays and concerts. And some of us go to extra lengths to decorate our sanctuary space and even to make the front of our building particularly warm and inviting. But what about the rest of the year? How do we show joy year-round? How might celebration become a way of life — an overflowing response of gratitude for God’s faithfulness among us?
Second, celebrating small victories of evangelization. I am reminded again as I read this piece of the need for us to tell stories constantly. We have a Friendship ministry Christmas service and a Candlelight service this Advent, both of which will tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Our Sunday worship gatherings will engage the story through the lens of John 1 this year. But you can still count on parts of Matthew 1 and Luke 2 making their way into our worship. Perhaps better than any other time of the year, our hymns and carols during Advent tell the story leading up to and celebrating Jesus’ birth. But I am left wondering where the space is to tell the ongoing impact of that story. How do can we make room in our gathering together to hear and tell the stories of evangelization? We know the big story of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, but how are we making room to hear its echoes reverberating in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces? What might it look like to celebrate the ways in which The Story is filling the stories of our lives and transforming the lives of those around us? How are we creating room in our communities to celebrate “every small victory” of evangelization throughout the year?
Third, perhaps the thought that is percolating most right now is the connection of this joyful character with beauty in the liturgy. While some of us will certainly look at the Roman Catholic liturgy with skepticism and doubt, I would encourage us not to miss the implication here. The idea that the beauty of communal worship can convey the joy of the gospel in a way that declares the good news of Jesus Christ is powerful. In our congregation, I find that we are more attentive to the spaces and sounds of joy in worship during this time of year. We are attentive to the movement of the grand story from a God has created everything good into a space of lament where we confess our sins and into hearing the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, through which we are sent by and with the Spirit as recipient-participants in God’s work of making all things new. That movement of God’s story in communal worship, whether in a more formal liturgical setting or in a more casual conversational approach, is frequently more joyful and more pronounced at this time of year. What might it look like to give space and room for the beauty of that liturgy to burst with joy throughout the year? How might our joy and delight overflow our worship gatherings throughout the year? How might our attitude and character shift if we found ourselves rediscovering the joy of the gospel through the beauty of a liturgy that tells the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ throughout the year? Would we become a people marked by an evangelizing joy?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions on how the joy we embrace during this season might be encouraged throughout the year. What does this look like in your context?