Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

The joy of the ‘Shoshben’

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

John the Baptist goes to great lengths in the Gospels to tell us who he is not. He says he is not the Messiah, Elijah or the prophet. Other than calling himself “the voice crying out in the desert,” he identifies himself uniquely in the Gospel of John as the “Shoshben,” the Semitic word meaning “friend of the bridegroom.”

In marking the Third Sunday of Advent, called “Gaudete Sunday,” the church selects the Gospel of John’s portrayal of the Baptist as the person we should look to as we rejoice as Christmas draws near.

Among the many responsibilities of the Shoshben, three come to mind as the source of his joy.

First, the Shoshben is totally responsible for the wedding feast. He would be a cross between today’s best man and a wedding planner. He has to be totally focused on this task, selfless and fully dedicated. His is the joy of forgetting himself, the kind of joy I have seen in first-time parents, who are totally absorbed in the life of their new child, showing no hesitation to give of their time and resources and doing so joyfully.

Too often we can become so burdened with our own cares and anxieties that a low-grade sadness begins to take hold of our hearts. It is in such moments that we need to rediscover the joy of forgetting ourselves and turn our attention to others who need us.

The Shoshben also is responsible for the invitations. In fact, in those days he would go door-to-door inviting people to the wedding feast. His joy is in bringing people together or connecting people with one another.

Some years ago, a video of a Special Olympics competition went viral. Contestants were lined up for a foot race, and as they took off after the starting gun, one of the boys fell down and scraped his knee. Hearing his cries of disappointment, the others looked back and in unison stopped. They went back for him, grabbed him by his hands and raced down the track together, hand in hand, to the finish line. They showed that there was more joy in crossing the finish line together than having one winner do it alone.

These days of physical (which is not to say social) distancing can make us feel isolated and disconnected from others. Yet, these Olympians, like John, remind us that when we reach out to others and connect with one another in the many ways possible for us in this age of technology, we understand the joy of being connected.

I have often thought that our experience of the pandemic would have been so much more difficult had it not been for today’s communications tools. A hundred years ago, there were only radios, telephones and telegrams. No TV, internet or social media. Let’s use them and be joyful in staying socially close to each other even though we are physically apart.

Finally, the Shoshben is responsible for securing the gifts the couple will need to start their lives together. He lets the guests know what the newlyweds lack, aware of what each of the invited is able to bring. His joy is calling the best gifts out of others.

As I reflect on my own experience, there have been many people, teachers, coaches, parents, mentors and superiors who called gifts out of me which I otherwise did not recognize. It is easy to find faults and name the mistakes of others, but there is a special joy in calling the best out of others.

The joy of the Shoshben can be ours: by forgetting ourselves, by promoting unity in our families and keeping connected so that no one who lags behind is forgotten and by calling the best out of each other. That is the joy we are invited to have as we draw near to Christmas.