15 December 2013

Make your heart firm by rejoicing

3rd Sunday of Advent/Gaudete Sunday (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

As a newly oiled priest, I served in campus ministry at the University of Dallas. Our office in the student union was always roiling with activity. During the Advent season, which arrives just before the end of the semester and finals week, the liturgical energy of the office was always focused on Christmas. Christmas music. Christmas decorations. Christmas chatter. On occasion, frustrated with such blatant liturgical incorrectness, I would growl something anti-Christmas from my office-cave and remind everyone that we were in Advent not Christmas. The students would smile indulgently; murmur, “Yes, Father, we know,” and go right back to their Christmasy chatter. I become known as The Advent Nazi, or Friar Grinch. The only support afforded me in my lonely push to keep Christmas out of Advent was James' letter “to the twelve tribes in the dispersion,” where the apostle urges his Jewish-Christian community: “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” All of Advent is about patiently waiting for the birth of Christ. Gaudete Sunday is all about rejoicing, and rejoicing never waits!

So, why do we celebrate Gaudete Sunday during Advent? Three words: joy, expectation, revelation. Like Laetare Sunday during Lent, Gaudete Sunday breaks the fast of the season, giving us a peek at the coming revelation of the Incarnation. These “times off” were more welcomed in ages past. Fasting and abstinence were a bit more severe and a Sunday spent partying a week before Christmas and Easter served to relieve the burden of penance. Nowadays, we jump from Thanksgiving straight to Christmas without much of anything in between. This is an old complaint among us Advent Nazis, one that falls on ears deafened by hypnotizing muzaked carols and the cha-ching of the cash register. Those of us who push Advent as its own season usually fail in our mission, managing only to foist upon Christmas-happy Catholics modest concessions. I'm told again and again, “Stop being Father Grinch, Father!” And with great pastoral sensitivity and an ear to the popular mood, I usually just release an exasperated sigh and do my best to preach that without a sense of expectation, waiting is useless to our growth in holiness; without a sense of the hidden, revelation has nothing to reveal; and without a little holy fear, joy is just a mood-stabilizer for the bubble-headed
Properly understood then, Gaudete Sunday is more than just a peek at the holiday to come; it is a expectant-peek into the unveiling of our joy in Christ. We re-joice. We en-joy. We can be joy-ful. Where do we find joy? Why do find joy in this but not that? Why aren't we gladden by all that God has made? Why isn't everyone joyful? St. Thomas gives us an important (if somewhat dry) insight: “[. . .] joy is caused by love, either through the presence of the thing loved, or because the proper good of the thing loved existed and endures in it [. . .] Hence joy is not a virtue distinct from charity, but an act, or effect, of charity”(ST II-II 28.1, 4). Joy is an effect of love. Love causes joy. Where there is no love, there can be no joy. This may sound simple enough, but how often have you heard joy explicitly linked to the virtue of charity? Don't we usually think of being joyful, as a temporary emotional spike in an otherwise hum-drum existence? We move along the day in a comfortable flat-line until something happens to us that lifts our spirit, bumps the happy meter up a peg or two. Then the line goes flat again, waiting for the next spike, for the next jump to excite the bored soul. 
This waiting for another spike in joy is not what the Lord has in mind when tells us that he has come so that our “joy may be complete.” Complete joy is not intermittent joy, or joy-for-some-time-in-the-future. Complete joy is perfected joy, all-the-time-joy. This doesn't mean that we're supposed to be walking around with idiot grins on our faces, or leaping about like squirrels on speed. Remember: joy is caused by love. And, as followers of Christ, we all know that loving God, others, and self is the First Commandment. Being joyful then is a necessary corollary to this command, its natural effect. If Thomas is right—and, of course, he is—we can be perfectly joyful b/c the “presence of the thing loved” (i.e., God) is guaranteed. He is with us always. Even during Advent, while we wait for his arrival, he is with us. When James writes, “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord,” he knows that Christ never left and will come again. How is our joy made perfect? By the perfect presence of the one we love. Our waiting in Advent is practice; that is, a rehearsal meant to heighten our anticipation for the renewal of creation, the renewal that both Isaiah and Jesus prophesy as the mark of God's favor.

That renewal goes well beyond my renewal, your renewal, and the renewal of the entire human race. Though we are privileged in many ways as creatures created in His image and likeness, God's favor is universal, repairing every deficiency; healing every wound; and making straight the crooked paths to His righteousness. Isaiah sees the land itself rejoicing at the Lord's return: “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song.” When John's disciples ask Jesus about his ministry, Jesus replies, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. . .” In the presence of God, nothing broken, thrown away, disparaged, or lost remains unclaimed; no one hurt, hungry, poor, or lonely remains untended. There is nothing to fear, nothing worth fearing. Therefore, Isaiah says, “Strengthen your feeble hands, steady your weak knees, encourage those with frightened hearts: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God! He comes with vindication; with divine justice He comes to save you.” 
And save you He will, if you will to be saved. Ask to be saved and be patient. Wait upon the Lord. James writes, “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient.” How does the farmer wait on the rain? He does everything necessary before the rain arrives, everything necessary so that the rain can do its best work for his benefit. The farmer's waiting is never merely passive. He waits, but he works while he waits. James says, “Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” That's our work while we wait: making our hearts firm. . .not hard but firm. A firm heart never faints in fear, or flutters with impatience, or races with undue excitement. A firm heart beats with steady, consistent joy in the loving presence of God; a firm heart is always pointed toward the Lord and never forgets the Way of righteousness. Waiting—especially waiting upon the Lord—is good exercise for the heart. We wait for a revelation at Christmas, the unveiling of the Christ Child, Emmanuel. Tonight, we rejoice b/c he is with us even now. We rejoice b/c he arrives. . .again. And our renewal, the renewal of all of creation is at hand! “Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return. . .crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, and sorrow and mourning will flee.”

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->


  1. I enjoyed reading this homily. Almost all congregations will "warm up" to a personal story, especially when it serves the homily and isn't there just as an interesting add-on. Second paragraph was great - though I'm glad I wasn't eating or drinking anything when I read the words: "with great pastoral sensitivity"....though that sentence was fantastic, I have laughed each time I've read it! I like how things really started rolling in the third paragraph, which was continued in the fourth paragraph, fifth paragraph was terrific, and I appreciated your final paragraph as you explained "waiting" with a good example to make it understandable.

    Nicely done! Thanks!!

    1. Finally! SHE likes it, she really likes it! ;-)