Sunday of Advent
61:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-28
I know a young man who has been blind from
birth. Recently his father died, and
he’s grieving about that, and he’s despairing, too, about the future, afraid that
he won’t be able to find a job or someone to share his life with.
And Isaiah says, in the depths of this, in
the heart of it: rejoice. St. Paul says: rejoice always.
I know a woman who is estranged from her
son. He lives far away, trying to heal
from the wounds of abuse, and she is afraid that they will never be reconciled.
And Isaiah says rejoice. John the Baptist says, in his courage and his confidence: Someone is coming. Someone is here.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, Joy Sunday, and it proclaims what Pope Francis in his first
apostolic exhortation, last year, called the Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium, and this joy isn’t just
a feeling. It’s a way of looking at the
world. It’s a call.
Sometimes the joy just wells up in us. We feel it intensely: when we talk with a friend, when we hear a
symphony, when we look out on the beauty of the earth. But even in the darkness, even in the desert,
there is a joy beyond measure, there is a tenderness and a love. This is what we believe. This is the faith that we have to try to bring
to others, to help them and console them in their struggling---that the
darkness is itself a grace, is itself a call, to give up our attachments and to
die into a new and wonderful freedom. “In all circumstances,” St. Paul says,
“give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
I know many people in the Church whose
faith in this joy is wavering and weak—I look at one in the mirror every
morning--and of these people Pope Francis offers a very sharp critique. We
have the right beliefs, in a way, but we don’t live them. Our faith, the pope says, “is a mere
appendage to our life, not part of our very identity.” We’ve let the media wear us down and we’ve
let the skepticism of others wear us down, and though we pray, we’ve developed
what the pope calls “a sort of inferiority complex which leads us to relativize
or conceal our Christian identity and convictions.” We want to be like everyone else, and we are,
just as attached to money, just as hungry for human power and human glory. We may be Christians in name but in fact
we’re what Francis calls “practical relativists”: “acting as if God did not exist, making
decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not
The media likes Pope Francis because he
seems like such a nice guy, and he is, but the joy he is calling us to isn’t
easy. He’s not saying everything is
alright. He’s saying: rejoice, but rejoice in the Lord, and you haven’t been.
“In God is the joy of my soul,” Isaiah proclaims, not in houses and cars
and jobs. The reason we feel so listless
and despairing, the reason we can’t help and console the people who need us, is
that we’ve let ourselves drift away from the one true source. As Francis puts it, “disillusioned with reality,
with the Church and with ourselves, we experience a constant temptation to
cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope.”
But the truth isn’t relative and it isn’t just
an idea. The truth is a person, and he
had a name and he has a name, Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, and when John the
Baptist sees him walking towards him, he knows--he knows immediately: behold the Lamb of God!
behold, someone is coming, I’m not
sure who--or, behold, I think someone
is coming, but that doesn’t mean that I’m some sort of religious fanatic.
No, the One Who is Coming is the One Above
All Others, he is all greatness and all beauty, and unless we kneel before him
as the Baptist does, unless we give up our illusions and organize our lives
around him and him alone, we will never be happy, we will never be free.
I know many people who are afraid profess their
faith because they don’t want to offend anyone else. Again, I’m one of them. The only secular dogma is the dogma that no
one should claim any dogmas. And of
course as Christians we have to be humble and we have to respect the beliefs of
others. But we’re talking about joy
here, not doctrine, and joy is always gentle and joy never judges, but it’s
also never equivocal and it’s never ashamed.
Joy is joy. It’s overflowing.
I know many people who are uncertain about
their faith because of the scandals in the Church—we’ve all been shaken by what
has happened--but in the words of Pope Francis, “the pain and the shame we feel
at the sins of some members of the Church, and at our own, must never make us
forget how many Christians are giving their lives in love.” The sins of the Church are real, and they
have to be faced, but we’re talking about joy, and joy is joy, it’s
overflowing, and joy is at the heart of the Church. Joy is what the Church is really about.
And patience, too, Francis says. Patience is necessarily related to joy.
I’d never thought about this before.
What Advent proclaims is that however deep
and real the joy we sometimes feel, there’s something missing still--these
moments are just glimpses of a still greater joy to come, of a still greater
future--and so faith is always a matter, too, of what Francis calls “patient
expectation and apostolic endurance . . .
a disregard for the constraints of time.”
Maybe it will be years before the woman is
reconciled with her son, before the blind man finds a job, and maybe these
things will never happen, at least in this lifetime. But there’s a larger pattern here, larger
even than death, and our joy finally comes from our knowledge of this pattern
and our faith in this pattern.
Something good is coming. That’s what we have to say, and what we have to
believe. The future isn’t something to fear,
the future isn’t something that should terrify us. Whatever our struggles now, whatever our loneliness
now, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.
I know a man who hasn’t gone to confession
for years, who hasn’t experienced the sacrament of reconciliation in a long time. He says it feels foreign to him. He’s forgotten what to do.
And to him I say: rejoice.
Now is your chance, this Tuesday, at our communal penance service. Don’t worry about the process. The priest will guide you. Just go, and before you do, I offer this
prayer from the pope as a way of doing the kind of examination of conscience
Fr. Ignatio has been asking us all to make, not just before confession, but
Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a
thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my
covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more
into your redeeming embrace.
He will. He never tires of forgiving us,
as Francis says a few sentences later. “We
are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”
But God never tires, and his grace is always abundant and always
available, and this is what Advent is about, this is what the Gospel is about,
grace and grace abounding. This is the
source of our joy and only this, the One Who is Coming, the Child Who Will Be