Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
People who have never done it sometimes wonder how it is possible to drive a car in Rome. From the footpath, looking on, it seems like a kind of chaos. Vehicles appear from every angle and move at startling speeds. People change direction without warning and, it seems, without reason. How is it that there are not more accidents? (Sadly, of course, there are many accidents, some of them very serious.) But most of the time it seems as if the angels must be busy intervening, here, there and everywhere, to prevent scratches, scrapes, and worse disasters.
Once one sits behind the wheel, however, and ventures into the thick of it, it becomes clear that there is an elaborate dance underway. The rules of the dancing are not written down anywhere (as far as I know) but a little bit of experience shows that there are conventions in the ways people approach each other and pull back, position each other in relation to other dancers, adjust speed and direction to allow others in or out, weave into the traffic and back out again, find the most economical way of making progress. The rules are in the dancing itself and are seen only by those who participate in it. Understood in this way, and still staying attentive and alert, driving in Rome is one of the most exciting things a person can do. When it is going well it is sweet, joyful, even graceful.
Today is Gaudete Sunday, 'Rejoice Sunday', and there is a lot of joy in the readings. One translation of the text from Zephaniah speaks of the Father dancing. Joy reaches even into the heart of God. In fact the deepest joy originates in the heart of God and it is God who brings it to us, into the midst of His people. We can speak of God dancing with His people: he is Lord of the Dance as we used to sing back in the bad old 1970s. He has come to invite us to the dance, to join hands with Him in the dance of redemption. The dance of which He is the Lord renews the creation and opens up new possibilities of life for His people, even the promise of eternal life.
In any kind of dancing, timing is crucial. The one who dances sweetly, gracefully, beautifully, has their timing exactly right. There is no dissonance, no scratches, scrapes, or unsightly collisions on the dance floor. We believe that God's timing must be exactly right. He has acted 'in the fulness of time' as we are reminded again and again in Advent and through Christmas time. Sin is a matter of bad timing, getting the direction wrong, mistaking the speed, acting where we should not have done, or not acting where we should have done. It is a good out of place as the Christian tradition teaches us (sometimes very seriously out of place, sometimes with deadly consequences: so not a light thing).
John the Baptist has a key role in the unfolding of the dance. He is one of the earlier movements in the dance of redemption and he teaches others how to prepare for it. To get to the joy that is promised people need to practise right living, justice, fairness, and compassion. Joy is the flourishing of peace and justice, their radiance, the sweetness of good living. Joy is, in the first place, God Himself who is simply happy in the eternal love-making that is the Blessed Trinity. And the Father has sent the Son to baptise us in the Spirit and with fire, making us to be dancers, participants and not just bystanders.
Rejoice in the Lord always, Paul says in the reading from Philippians. Joy is not something that can be turned on like a tap, at will, when prescribed. It is the fruit of kindness and prayer. It requires us to enter into the dance and understand it from within. Looking on from the footpath it will seem strange: John the Baptist, a joyful figure? But once we step into the dance, and begin to learn its rules, we see that it makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense because its winding ways lead inevitably to the Lord of the Dance, a mighty Saviour, who rejoices over us with gladness and renews us in His love, a crazy Lord who sings joyfully and dances gracefully on account of the ones He loves.