3rd Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Lay Carmelites/OLR, NOLA
Last Sunday we heard a tough question from St Paul, “Since everything is to be dissolved [by fire], what sort of persons ought you to be[?]” This is the sort of soul-searching question we ask when it appears that there is little else we can do to make things right. The sort of question that cuts away the fat and exposes the meat of the matter. When everything you know and love is rushing headlong toward a fiery end, and there is nothing to be done, nothing to be said, and the only thing that matters is the eternal disposition of your soul, you ask yourself: “What sort of person ought I to be?” Of course, for a follower of Christ, not knowing the time or place of the Lord's return, every minute and every hour of everyday is an occasion to ponder this question. Standing before us as Savior and Just Judge, our Lord draws us toward our final judgment, our ultimate end. And our response to his allure – how we choose to see and hear his invitation – says everything that can be said about our faithfulness to the mission and ministry we left us to complete. What response from us best exemplifies our faithfulness? JOY!
Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul straightens their spines with an admonition, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks. . .” That's your plan for next week, your plan to prepare for the coming of the Christ-Child. First, rejoice always! Are you joyful, filled with joy? I don't mean, “Are you a nice person who's always smiling and laughing?” Ask any comedian – being funny, making others laugh is not always a matter of joy. There's plenty to laugh at in a despairing world, plenty to mock and disparage. Humor alone is not joy. Joy is an act of charity, a willful-doing-of-love; conscious, active behavior that give God the glory and increases the Good of another. Joyfulness then is the disposition, the attitude from which every truly loving act begins. Not all good deeds are loving. We can do “good deeds” out of selfishness – to gain advantage, to massage an ego, to put another in our debt, or to pay a debt. We can say nice things in order to avoid an unpleasant confrontation or to win someone to our cause. But every truly joyful act, every truly loving act is done so that God's glory is made manifest and the Good of another is perfected. To rejoice always is to live in a permanent state of giving God the glory for the love He has shown us and sharing His love abundantly, recklessly.
One way – the best way – we can share God's love is to follow Paul's second admonition to the Thessalonians: pray without ceasing. Prayer, simply put, is talking to God; specifically, giving Him thanks and praise for His many gifts, and receiving those gifts to use for the benefit of others. But how do we give God thanks and praise w/o ceasing? Do we walk around mumbling the Our Father all day, or let the Act of Contrition run through our minds while we go about our work? We could. But Paul is pointing toward a kind of prayer that goes much deeper than mere recitation. To pray w/o ceasing is to make every thought, word, and deed a prayer. Make everything you think, say, and do an act of praise and thanksgiving to God. We accomplish this by “putting on the mind of Christ,” by wholly surrendering our hearts and minds to the mission and ministry of Christ. To make a cup of coffee, hot water must be strained through a filter of ground up coffee beans. To pray w/o ceasing, our thoughts, words, and deeds must be strained through a filter of sacrificial love. Is this thought, this word, this deed filtered through self-giving charity, through the joy that comes with receiving the Father's mercy?
Paul's third admonition to us is probably the most difficult: “In all circumstances give thanks. . .” Rejoicing always and praying w/o ceasing are too easy when compared to giving thanks in all circumstances. We understand the need for thanksgiving when we receive a gift or a compliment. Saying, “thank you” is a habit our parents instilled in us from day one. However, Paul says that we must give thanks in all circumstances not just when we receive something we want. Is it possible to give thanks for disease and disaster? Yes. For loss and setbacks? Yes. These are the times when thanksgiving to God is the most efficacious in strengthening our relationship to the Father. How? The whole point of giving thanks to God is to acknowledge our total dependence on His grace for everything we have and everything we are. If we are alive – even in the worst circumstances – then we are alive to give thanks. We are alive to serve, alive to love, and to forgive. In other words, we are alive to carry on growing in holiness and bearing witness to the Good News. Circumstances, by definition, change. We change. Our reactions change. God, however, never changes. He is steadfast in loving us and drawing us closer and closer to Himself.
As God draws us closer to Himself, we respond by rejoicing always; by praying w/o ceasing; and by giving thanks in all circumstances. When we do these things, we not only heed Paul's admonitions, we also begin to imitate the ministry of John the Baptist. John is sent ahead to announce the coming of the Christ. He's not Christ himself nor is he an ancient prophet reborn. Like John, we are forerunners, harbingers of the Christ. Like John, we go out and bear witness to the mercy of Father, announcing the need for repentance, and rejoicing at the coming of the Lord. This season of preparation is set aside so that we might pre-pare; that is, pare away before he comes. Cut away anything that stands btw us and the Christ – pride, despair, vengeance, old wounds, jealousy, spite, anger – whatever might pull us away from Christ and toward the desolation of the Enemy. Like John, we were made to go back to God; we were re-made in Christ to preach and teach his Good News. In about ten days, Christ will come as a child – vulnerable, needy, small. When his hour comes, he will come again as Savior and Just Judge – powerful, merciful, majestic. Between now and then, btw this 3rd Sunday of Advent and his awaited return, we are drawn into the mission and ministry of John the Baptist – to preach, to praise, to bless in Christ's name any and all who see and hear the Word of the Father. As followers of Christ, our job is to make sure – with our rejoicing, our praying, and our thanksgiving – to make sure that His Word is clearly see and clearly heard.