December 15, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Sunday of Advent
Reading I (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11)
Reading II (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)
Gospel (St. John 1:6-8, 19-28)
“Rejoice always,” Saint Paul says in the second reading today, “and pray unceasingly.” Those two things are absolutely linked. There is no possible way we are going to be able to rejoice in all the circumstances of our lives unless we are praying, unless we can recognize that this is the Will of God. It is easy for us to rejoice in momentary things when everything seems to be going well on those relatively rare occasions where we are on top of the world for a few hours or maybe a day or two, but that usually does not last very long. And, really, if we stop and think about it, we would have to say that most Christian people are not necessarily very happy. That is a sad thing because this should be one of the salient points of anyone who is a member of Jesus Christ. How is it that we can be a member of Christ and not be filled with joy, unless we have taken our focus off of Him? That is the only way. If we put our focus on to something else, of course we are going to sink! If we have bought into all that this world is claiming to offer, we are going to sink hard because we have our heart focused on things that will not be able to fulfill it.
We know, however, that in the life of a Christian person there are going to be some very, very painful and difficult things, times when we are going to feel crushed beyond our strength. Yet, in the midst of that, Saint Paul continues to tell us that we are to rejoice. Now Saint Paul is not some sort of a daydreaming character who does not have a clue what he is talking about. He is not someone who is riding a high wave of emotionalism, thinking that the way of the Christian life is an easy thing. After all, if we look at what he wrote to the Corinthians, he tells us that he was shipwrecked, beaten, scourged, stoned, and we know that when he went to Macedonia he was crushed even to the point of despairing of life. Yet he tells us to rejoice, to rejoice even in the sufferings, which is what we see over and over again in the New Testament. Saint Peter tells us that we are to rejoice in the measure in which we share in the suffering of Christ. Saint James tells us that we are to count it as pure joy when we are involved in any sort of trial.
This sounds to an American mind like there is something psychologically wrong. How can anyone rejoice in the midst of suffering? The only way is if we look at Jesus and if we are united with Him – with His Cross and with His suffering. When we look at the crucifix of Christ, we recognize that there is the key to salvation. In the Cross is our only hope. In the Cross is our strength. In the Cross is our cause for rejoicing. And if we are members of Jesus Christ, we have to be united with Christ on the Cross as well as in every other part of His life.
When we hear in the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah that God has sent His Messiah to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord, that it is a time of rejoicing, and that He rejoices like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem or like a bride bedecked with her jewels, what that conjures up in our minds is a very happy and blessed and beautiful moment when a couple comes before the Lord to be married. But if we look at what comes right before that, He is speaking to the brokenhearted, to the prisoners, to the captives, to all of those who are crushed and in pain. Yet He is rejoicing like a bride or a bridegroom. It is this year of favor that the Lord is proclaiming to each one of us: that we can have freedom from sin, that we can have freedom from the bondage and the shackles of Satan.
What this world and particularly this society is offering in the way that they have twisted the Constitution of the United States is no longer freedom of religion but freedom from religion. It is freedom to sin, which is license not liberality. It is exactly the opposite of what Saint Paul tells us when he speaks of the freedom of the children of God, he says, “Does this mean that we are free to sin?” And he follows by saying, “By no means.” The freedom of the children of God is the freedom to do the Will of God; it is freedom from sin, freedom from bondage. That is the cause for rejoicing. But how does freedom from sin come about other than the Cross of Christ?
We all know that we need to confess our sins in order to be forgiven of them. If you have not been to Confession yet, you need to get there soon – and often – so that you can continue to grow. One of the most joyful points in any life is to be able to go to Confession. When you walk out knowing that your sins are forgiven and that all things have been made new in Christ, there is cause for great rejoicing at that moment in the love and the mercy of Jesus Christ to forgive our sins. But that forgiveness of sins is in the Blood of Christ.
We look, then, to Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians where he tells us that he rejoices because he has the opportunity to share in the suffering of Christ, that he can offer his suffering for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church. Jesus offers to each one of us the exact same thing. We have an opportunity to share in His suffering and to make up for what is lacking in His suffering. Not that His suffering is somehow insufficient; but rather, in His love and mercy for us not only is He willing to forgive our sins, but He is willing to allow us to share in the work of redemption. That is how much He loves us. But the work of redemption was accomplished on the Cross. And so the greatest joy for a Christian, according to every single saint, should be suffering. That is not the American way, but it is the Christian way. Jesus told us that we are to take up our cross and follow in His footsteps. It is in that that we will find our joy.
Now that joy comes with a purification. But in the midst of our suffering, most of us become just like those Pharisees and the priests and the Levites who were sent to John the Baptist. Saint John the Baptist had to tell them that there was one in their midst who they did not recognize who was greater than he, one whose sandal he was not worthy to untie. Jesus is in our midst, and He is in our midst in such a profound way. He is offering to us the cause of the greatest rejoicing: that we can share in the work of the salvation of souls, that we can be united with Him as a bride to a bridegroom on the Cross where He consummated the marriage to His Church and to each and every member of the Church, each of us. If we are going to be a part of Christ – which is the greatest dignity that any human being can have – we have no part of Him if it is not on the Cross.
Yet for most of us, when He offers us a share in the Cross, we do not recognize Him; in fact, most of us reject Him and we give in to the sadness, the darkness, and the despair of this world that does not know Christ and has no joy. Our way needs to be one filled with joy. If only we would recognize Who it is that is in our midst and Who is offering to us this beautiful and profound gift. But we must see it as a gift and we must recognize the Giver of the gift. That is not an easy thing for us because He is in our midst as One who is hidden, One whom we do not recognize – or for some, One whom we do not want to recognize because we know that to be members of Christ comes with a cost. But if that cost will perfect us in holiness and will bring many others to salvation, we should not run away from it, we should run to it and we should be rejoicing to do so. That is the gift the Lord is offering to us.
As we celebrate this Gaudete Sunday, which means “rejoice”, we wear rose today because in the midst of our Advent penance we are reminded in a profound way that the penance we have taken on in preparation for Christmas is bearing great fruit, that there is cause for rejoicing, that not only is our soul being prepared for Christmas but we have no idea the countless number of souls who are also being helped by what we are doing, the number of people who are coming to Christ and offering to Him the greatest Christmas gift that He could ever have, that is, the confession of their sins that have not been told for many years. If your suffering has been the cause of that soul coming back to Christ, not only is it the most beautiful thing you can give to Jesus, but it is a cause for great rejoicing.
Saint Paul, again, at the beginning of the second reading, links the two points that we must keep clearly linked: to pray always in the midst of anything and everything. In the most joyful moments of life and the most despairing and difficult moments of life, we must keep our heart focused on Jesus. And when we can see that everything – absolutely everything – that comes about in our lives is a gift from the Lord, no matter how good or bad it may seem to us on the surface; when we can accept it as a gift from the Lord; and when we can pray and unite ourselves with the Lord in the midst of whatever is happening in our lives; it is then that we can see the beauty and the gift He is offering. It is then and only then that we will be able to rejoice even in the midst of our suffering because we will recognize the liberty, the freedom that the Lord is offering. We will recognize our dignity as a bride united to the Bridegroom, offering the gift of the self back to Christ as He offers the gift of Himself to each of us.
So we must be people of prayer, profound and deep prayer. Not just at a little moment for the day or for an hour a week, but at every moment of every day to make our lives a prayer, to unite our lives completely to Jesus Christ, to share in His glory – which is the Cross – and with Him, then, to rejoice, to rejoice that the glory of God is being revealed in us and through us, that we are being perfected, and that souls are being saved. That is why the saints tell us there is great cause for rejoicing in the midst of our suffering. And so as the Church pauses today to rejoice, it is for that reason: to see what is happening to our own souls and to know that many others are being affected by our charity. Then we see that there is cause for rejoicing and to rejoice always in the Lord and Our Lady. As we heard in the responsorial psalm, which was actually Our Lady’s Magnificat, we can sing with her: My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.