December 12, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Sunday of Advent
Reading I (Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10) Reading II (James 5:7-10)
Gospel (St. Matthew 11:2-11)
Today the Church celebrates what is called “Gaudete Sunday.” The word gaudete means “rejoice.” If we look at the entrance antiphon from this morning’s Mass, the first word is “rejoice,” and that is where the name for this week comes from, the very first word that would be spoken at the beginning of the Mass. Now one would ask why it is that we would be rejoicing if it is a season of penance. It is precisely because we have made our way more than halfway through this season and the day of the celebration of Christmas is drawing near. So on this day, as well as on the fourth Sunday of Lent, the Church prescribes that rose-colored vestments be worn, rose being the halfway mark between the purple of the penance and the white of the celebration of the feast of Christmas. It is a sign of hope that is in the midst of our penance to encourage us to keep going and remind us that we have made it more than halfway there and we just have a little way to go.
And there is great reason for rejoicing as we look at the readings that the Church has given us for today. We hear in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah that the desert and the parched land will exalt, the steppe is going to bloom. We think about what this really means. Certainly, on the natural level, it implies that those areas that are barren, that are dry, where there is nothing growing, are suddenly going to burst forth with new life; and not just any variety, but we are told that the glory and the splendor of Carmel and Sharon are going to be given to them. Carmel and Sharon are two mountains in the Holy Land that are particularly lush and green with beautiful evergreens and flowers and springs around the mountains, and so the glory of these mountains is what is going to be given even to these barren places.
Now if apply these things to ourselves, we might be very quick to point out that our souls sometimes are very much like a desert, like the wilderness. They are barren, they are dry, and they are dark. There are various reasons for that. Anyone who has been serious about the prayer life knows very well that the majority of time in prayer is spent in darkness and dryness. Sometimes it seems that God is a million miles away and we cannot find Him. People think they are doing something wrong when that happens in prayer, and they say things like “God is nowhere around,” “I’m not getting anything out of it,” “I shouldn’t be wasting my time trying to do this because I can’t do it well.” The saints, on the other hand, tell us that when things are dry and difficult in prayer is actually when we are getting the most out of prayer, just the opposite of what it feels like. They would encourage us, of course, to persevere, to keep going and to wait (as Saint James tells us) in patience as we await the precious yield that is going to burst forth in the darkness and the dryness of the desert of our souls.
But there are other ways that our souls can be a desert. Anyone who is in the state of mortal sin is deprived of divine life. The grace of God is not there, and therefore the dew which brings forth the vegetation, the rain which is going to provide for the growth and for the glory and the bursting forth of these flowers that are foretold is not present in a soul that is in the state of mortal sin. If that is the case, if you look within your own heart and you recognize that there is mortal sin there that has not been confessed, then that is the first thing you have to do. You need to get very quickly to confession. You need to confess your sins and be forgiven so the divine life once again is there, and you will indeed experience the beauty and the glory that God is going to bestow upon your soul because in that case – literally, in an instant – you go from being a barren wasteland to being filled with the glory of God. Indeed, your soul will be bursting forth with new life and the glory of God’s holy mountains will be given to you.
But all of us, in the readings today, are called to holiness. If we listen to what Our Lord speaks about in the Gospel reading today, He talks about Saint John the Baptist and calls him the greatest man born of woman. With that in mind, we can look at that and say, “If this is the case, why?” It is because Saint John the Baptist was born without Original Sin. He was conceived with Original Sin, but at the Visitation when Our Lady went to visit Saint Elizabeth, when Our Lady’s greeting entered the ears of Saint Elizabeth, Saint John the Baptist, in her womb, leapt for joy. At that moment Original Sin was removed from his soul so that he was born without Original Sin. And yet Our Lord speaks to us and says that the least born into the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist. That is you. You have been born into the kingdom of heaven because you are baptized into Jesus Christ. And if you are greater than John the Baptist because of the grace of God which is in your soul, look at the holiness that incredible man achieved and now ask yourself, “If that’s the case, what is God asking of me?” If by grace we are higher than John the Baptist was by nature – and that is the case – then God is calling each one of us to profound holiness.
So we can begin, as we already have, with those who are in the state of sin. We need to begin by getting rid of the sin, because if we are in the state of mortal sin we have cut ourselves off from Christ. If that is the case, we are a living contradiction because on one hand, being baptized into Christ, we say we are members of Christ, but because of our sin we have removed ourselves from Him. It is a schizophrenic existence that we live because at the same time we are saying we are members of Jesus but we are not. We want to be one with Him but we do not want Him. We desire the divine life in heaven but we have chosen the opposite. So we need to repent, we need to confess our sins, and be forgiven.
There is only one place in this world where mortal sins will be forgiven, and that is in the confessional. If it has been a long time since you have been to confession, if you have not heard those beautiful words, “I absolve you of your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” then come to Jesus. The devil is a liar and he is the one telling you that you should not go. He is the one telling you that you need to be afraid. There is nothing at all to fear in the confessional – it is the tribunal of mercy, it is the place where Jesus extends to you His mercy and His forgiveness. You are not there to be yelled at; you are not there to be ridiculed; you are there to be forgiven. All that is asked is to make the act of the will, to humble yourself, to come before the mercy of God, and to open your soul to receive His forgiveness. Remember the consequences on either side. If we die in the state of mortal sin, we cannot go to heaven. There is no forgiveness on the other side. So for anybody who has bought into the devil’s lie that after your die you can stand before God and He will forgive you, that is wrong. That is the devil tricking you so you can spend eternity with Him. There is only forgiveness in this life, not in the next. And if we come before the Lord and confess our sins humbly and honestly, our sins will be destroyed. He will literally remove your sins from your soul and they will never be heard of again, ever. Even on the day when you stand before Christ for judgment, you will not hear about the sins that you have confessed and that have been forgiven in the confessional. All that is asked is one small act of humility, and the mercy of God is yours. Your soul will burst forth with new life, a new life that you perhaps have not known for a long time if you have fallen headlong into sin that has not yet been forgiven.
But we are not called merely to overcome mortal sin in our lives; we are called to be saints. If you have been able to overcome mortal sin, you need to praise God; but you need then to work on your venial sins and get rid of them. They are actually much more difficult to get rid of than the mortal sins because they are much more entrenched, they are much more a part of our personality, and they take a lot more effort to get rid of. If you have overcome venial sin in your life, then it is time to work on the imperfections, starting with the voluntary imperfections and then moving to the involuntary imperfections. Regardless, we are called to holiness. If we look at what Saint James tells us we are to be about, he says that we are to be patient; he says also that we are not to complain and that we are not to judge. The only ones who will not be complaining and will not be judging are very saintly people. For the rest of us, complaining and judging come pretty quickly and pretty easily, sadly. If we are called to the kind of holiness that is to overcome even complaining, judging, and impatience, that is a very, very great level of holiness because the last thing to go before perfection is our desire to judge.
So that is what we are being called to, and this will only happen through prayer, through effort on our part. We have to really want it, to desire it. But if we enter into prayer and into the darkness and the dryness, out into the desert (which is the norm for the prayer life), it is through that that we will be purified, we will be strengthened, and all of the things spoken of by the prophet Isaiah will be ours. The spiritual blindness will suddenly be removed and we will be able to see the glory of God. The spiritual deafness will be gone and we will be able to follow the voice of our Good Shepherd. Our spiritual paralysis will be removed and we will be able to leap like a stag. All of the things that seem to be so contrary will be healed within us, and truly then our souls will be bursting forth with new life.
It is in this way that we also demonstrate ourselves to be united with Christ. Last week in the readings we heard about the shoot that will sprout from the stump of Jesse, a bud that is going to blossom from the roots. Well, that is what we have the opportunity to do, to enter into the desert of our souls and to watch them be transformed so that from this seemingly dead stump new life will burst forth; and the bud that is going to blossom within each one of us is none other than Jesus Christ. That is the glory being offered to each of us. It is the glory of our call, of our dignity as members of Jesus Christ, to reflect upon that reality that Our Lord speaks of in the Gospel, and to recognize that by grace through Baptism we are higher than what Saint John the Baptist was by birth. And when we look at the greatness of that man whom God chose to be His forerunner, then we recognize also the greatness to which He is calling each of us, not merely to overcome mortal sin, but to strive for great holiness, to overcome every imperfection, to get rid of everything which is not of Christ, so that in the desert of our souls new life is going to burst forth. As on Christmas in the darkness of the year, the Light of the world will enter, so that in the darkness and the dryness of our prayer life, of our hearts, the light of Christ will shine forth and the glory of God will be given to us.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.