17 December 2017

How to grow in holiness

3rd Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

If you need a summary of Christian spirituality, something short and sweet as a daily reminder of who and what you are, you really can't beat these three sentences from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks. . .” What do I do to grow in holiness? Rejoice, pray, give thanks. How often should I rejoice, pray, and give thanks? Always, without ceasing. And when should I rejoice, pray, and give thanks? In all circumstances. If Paul is being serious here – and Paul is always serious – then the Christian response to every victory, to every failure, to every set-back, to every moment of both progress and retreat should be met with rejoicing, prayer, and giving thanks! This third Sunday of Advent is a short pause in our season of preparation and repentance to remember that Christ is coming and he is coming again. The God of peace makes us perfectly holy and preserves us blameless – spirit, soul, and body – for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in response to this great gift from the Father, we rejoice, pray, and give Him thanks.
First, we rejoice! But how do we rejoice? Remember the Blessed Mother, carrying Jesus in her womb, visiting Elizabeth her cousin who was pregnant with John? When Mary came close to Elizabeth, John leaped with joy! John was conceived in Elizabeth's barren womb for the singular prophetic purpose of being the herald of Christ's birth into the world. John leaped with joy b/c he recognize his purpose in Christ; he “saw” his goal, the end for which he was made. And his reaction was to rejoice – to celebrate with exuberance and delight. When the priests and Levites ask John – “Who are you?” – he answers, “I am not the Christ.” He doesn't immediately tell them who he is; he tells them who he isn't (the Christ) and who it is they must come to know and love (the one who is coming after him). Each one of us, conceived in our mothers' womb by the loving will of our Father, has a purpose, a goal; and in the waters of baptism, we have been charged with a mission, the same mission that causes the not-yet-born John to leap with joy. John is the herald of Christ's birth, his first coming among us as a man. We – each one of us – is a herald of Christ's coming among us again, as our Just Judge. Accept this mission anew and rejoice! Celebrate exuberantly like John did in his mother's womb. 
First, we rejoice; then, we pray. What do we pray for? Paul writes, “Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.” If we will be fruitful heralds and prophets – like John – then we must surrender ourselves to the wisdom of the Father in prayer, testing, proving everything we say and do against the Truth of our faith. We cannot be authentic prophets for Christ if we lie about the faith, if we bear false witness against the Gospel, or pretend that we know what is true and good better than the Church does. There can be no such thing as a free-floating Christian prophet, someone who invents – apart from God's Word and the Church – his or her own truth in order to deceive. So, we must test everything and keep only what is good. Paul also tells us that we must refrain from doing any kind of evil. Prayer, especially joyful prayer, brings us closer and closer to God, strengthening our bonds with Him, and clarifying our purpose in the His truth. Whatever or whoever attempts to turn us away from our prophetic mission is tempting us to do evil. John came “to testify to the light, so that all might believe. . .” Ask God your Father in prayer to keep you sharply focused on your mission, to turn aside any temptation to give up. That's what we pray for.

Rejoice, then pray, and, finally, give thanks! Giving thanks to God in all circumstances builds humility and makes it possible – more and more – for us to receive His graces as He gives them. Giving thanks to God in all circumstances guarantees us against the sins of entitlement, greed, pride, and envy. Giving thanks to God in all circumstances provides us with the direction, energy, and clarity we need to bear witness to His Christ and carry out our mission as prophetic heralds. Rejoicing and prayer are themselves kinds of thanksgiving. What better way to express our joy than to shout our gratitude to God for His gifts? What better way to pray than to turn our hearts and minds to gratitude for all that we have been given? The Enemy comes against us with an array of powerful weapons: despair, cynicism, suspicion, divisiveness, unrighteous anger, and hatred. All of these undermine Christian joy and make it difficult for us to give ourselves wholly to God. So, we pause in this season of preparation and repentance to celebrate the joyful task that we have been given and have received – to proclaim far and wide that Christ Jesus will come again! His mercy is freely given. To sinners his forgiveness is absolutely guaranteed.


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