“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”
As I struggled with the question of how it might be possible to rejoice even in the midst of suffering, my mind returned again and again to my experience of “Superstorm Sandy.” I live in a town on the north shore of Long Island. Here most were spared from devastating flooding that swept away or destroyed the homes of so many people on the southern shoreline, but we were not spared the winds which downed many trees. At the peak of the storm, a huge oak tree came crashing down on my driveway totaling both family cars. Twenty minutes later another tree tore down power lines and took out a utility pole around the corner from my house; the lights wouldn’t come back on for ten days.
Even while the storm raged on, and even the next day when I ventured outside and saw the scale of the damage I can honestly say that I did not despair. This was probably due in part to the fact that my socioeconomic location insulated me from experiencing any lasting harm. I have good insurance, and I have money saved. I was confident things would get better and be restored. An important dimension of hope is the belief that whatever hardship we are enduring is not the final word. Hence, initially it was fairly easy to have hope.
But after several days passed and things did not begin to return to normal, shadows of despair began to set in. It is one thing to go without a car or electricity for a few days. It is quite another to do so for over a week. Living in the dark without any clue about how long it could go on was an experience of powerlessness – both figuratively and literally. The losses many people endured were far worse than mine, but my suffering was still real. My hopefulness faltered.
Today’s readings point to two ways that hope can be kept alive in the midst of suffering – ways that we might endeavor to “rejoice always”. The first of these can be found in today’s Gospel in which the people ask John the Baptist, “What should we do?” He responds “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Later he instructs tax collectors not to collect more than is due and cautions soldiers against engaging in extortion. These are not dramatic gestures, but basic kindness and decency. And yet these small acts of generosity can be indispensable for sustaining hope – at least that was my experience. People with chain saws helped neighbors clear trees; others opened their doors to share heat and hot water with those who had neither. These gestures of solidarity supported hopefulness.
Human kindness is an important source of hope but this Sunday’s readings point to something else that is perhaps even more important: an awareness of the presence of God. “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The LORD, your God, is in your midst…” “Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel.” Even if you are in exile, if God is there with you all is not lost.
The experience of human generosity and God’s presence came together for me in a very profound way at the Saturday evening Mass on November 3rd. The lower level of our church had been opened as a shelter for those without heat or power. Meals were being served downstairs as we celebrated the Eucharist together upstairs. Over half the people at that Mass were still without power (our pastor asked for a show of hands). Several had been completely displaced from their homes. And yet there was an atmosphere of hope and deep reverence rather than despair. We were not discouraged or afraid, for the Lord God was profoundly in our midst. Strengthened by God’s presence we were inspired to send food, and coats, and money to our neighbors on the South Shore who had been left with nothing. Our own difficulties were not erased, but we had hope. Even in a difficult time we could rejoice for we still had God and each other.