NB. Feedback on this homily would be greatly appreciated. It didn't seem to go over very well with the congregation. Too convoluted? Too harsh?
4th Sunday of Advent 2011
4th Sunday of Advent 2011
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, New Orleans
As we approach the birth of the Lord and celebrate—this afternoon/morning—his conception in the womb of the BVM by the Holy Spirit, it may seem strange to ask, “What do we fear?” As a Church, as the Body of Christ, living in the world, what is there for us to fear? With some bravado, we might say, “Nothing! The world had better fear us!” A little more realistically, we might say, “There's always the temptations of the world to fear, to avoid.” Perhaps stoically, we could say, “There is much to fear, but we will endure.” None of these answers is wrong but none of them is exactly right either. There is much to fear but that doesn't mean we have to be afraid. We will endure but all those fearful things still exist despite our enduring strength. And the Church does cause the world some anxiety, some small amount of fear, but our task is not intimidation. When Gabriel appears to Mary and greets her with, “Hail! Full of grace! The Lord is with you,” the virgin is “greatly troubled at what was said and ponders what sort of greeting this might be.” Sensing her troubled spirit, Gabriel assures her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” If Mary is troubled by being named “Full of Grace” (and she is); and if the angel Gabriel calms her spirit by telling her that she has found favor with God (and he does); and if Mary is the model of the Church (and she is), then the Church is at once full of grace, favored by God, and troubled. The Lord's message to us then is: “Do not be afraid!”
We do not fear b/c there is nothing to be afraid of. There is more than enough in this world for us to fear. Temptations, failures, persecutions, betrayals, and trials. More than enough to keep us busy, to keep us occupied running, hiding, being silent. We could fear ridicule and rejection, embarrassment and being made into fools. We could fear defeat, disease, disability, all sorts of physical and mental disasters. We could find ourselves lacking faith, failing to trust in the Lord; scrambling with the faithless to acquire more and more, to “get mine” before its all gone. Whatever “it” is: money, stuff, prestige, power, attention. We could wake up tomorrow morning, forgetting everything we have ever believed, and find ourselves swept along with the world toward a darkness so black we fear that no light will ever shine for us again. There is much to fear. But there is no reason to be afraid. All who believe on the Word of God, the Son made flesh, they have found favor with the Most High!
Like the virgin, greeted by Gabriel, when we are ready to receive the Word made flesh, we too are “full of grace”; we too stand in the good graces of God; we too will hear and believe, “The Lord is with you.” And we will say yes to being bearers of the Good News to the world and, like Mary, we will carry the Messiah in our bodies and deliver him to all those most in need of his healing mercies. If this sounds too poetical, too vague, let me be a little more prosaic: when you approach the altar to receive communion, you are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ into your body and blood. Much like Mary received the Holy Spirit and conceived the Christ, we too say, “Let it be done to be according to your word” and receive Christ Jesus—body, blood, soul, divinity. While the Holy Spirit placed the Christ-child in Mary's womb, the Church places the Christ Resurrected and Ascended into our mouths as food and drink for our perfection. Mary departed her encounter with Gabriel pregnant yet still a virgin, a walking tabernacle carrying her Lord. We too depart this Church as walking, breathing tabernacles, carrying the Lord out into the world. We walk out into the world as the Body of Christ carrying the Body and Blood of Christ. This is why the Lord's message to us is: do not be afraid! He is with us. Yes, there is much to fear. But there is no reason to be afraid.
In a homily a few weeks ago, our Holy Father noted that the Church should fear the sins of her members more than she fears persecution at the hands of her enemies. Being followers of Christ, we we have been promised persecution and there is very little we can do to prevent the Enemy from tempting us, from putting us on trial. However, we are more than capable of refraining from disobedience. We are given—daily given—every grace we need to listen to and comply with the Word God has sent among us. The only question is whether or not we will choose to cooperate with those graces and grow in holiness. Sin is the mark of our failure to receive God's gifts and use them to announce His glory, to give Him thanks and praise, and to work tirelessly for the spreading of His Good News. We should fear our sins b/c they distort who it is that God has made us to be; they twist our love for Him and for one another; they misuse His beauty and goodness and lead us off the narrow way of Christ. It's not God's punishment that we should fear, but rather the natural and supernatural consequences of openly declaring ourselves enemies of the One Who gave us life. By choosing to sin, we set ourselves against the Love Who created us and assign ourselves to living lives in a wilderness empty of the very graces that we most need. God never stops loving us; it is His nature to love. However, we are free to cease loving Him, free to disobey Him, and the consequences of that choice are fearful indeed.
As you leave here this afternoon/morning, filled with the Body and Blood of Christ, set your heart and mind to wondering what it is you can do to bring our Lord to your world—your school, your office, your home, all your family and friends. How can you be the “mother” of Christ among those you know best? What can you do or say or not do or not say that will give him glory and draw in souls hungry for his eternal feast? We are in the last week of Advent, ready to welcome the Christ-child among us as our Savior on Christmas Day. Even though we celebrate his incarnation on this special day, he is given flesh and bone everyday of the year, every time we approach this altar and receive the sacrament, we walk away as a Christ. We walk out into a fearful world, filled with grace, overflowing with grace. . .do what Christ himself did and give your life away for the love of another.
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