16 December 2018

Scandal? Rejoice! Despair? Rejoice!

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

After so many months of bad news for the national and international Church, it's about time we rehearse some of the basics of the faith. I don't mean basic doctrines or moral precepts but the even more fundamental attitudes and dispositions that our status as heirs to the Kingdom should provoke in us. Even as we contend with scandal, betrayal, persecution, and trial, our best hope for surviving and growing in holiness is to remain joyful. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! [. . .] The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all. . .” What is there to rejoice about? Is Paul aware of what's being going in the Church lately? Does he know about the confusion, the secrets, the backstabbing and abuse? Does he know about the declining number of regular Mass-goers? Doesn't he know we have a priest shortage and that the number of sisters and nuns are in a free-fall? No, he doesn't. He wrote to the Philippians from prison while under the threat of the death penalty for preaching Christ. From prison. Preparing to die. For preaching Christ. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! The Lord is near!”

Why should we rejoice in the middle of this mess? Because the Lord is near. He's near to being born on Christmas Day, and he is near to coming again as our Just Judge, and he is near to us in the Blessed Sacrament, and he is near in one another as the Church. He is never far away. And we rejoice b/c – whatever the world throws our way, whatever disaster we face – we are his brothers and sisters, heirs to the Father's Kingdom. The proper attitude toward our situation –whatever that situation might be – is always joyfulness. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that joy is an effect of love. When one loves the result is joy. To experience joy and share that joy is a sign not only that we are loved but also that we love in turn. And I want to be clear here: I'm not talking about love and joy in worldly terms – warm fuzzies and butterflies and being goofy and giggly all the time. When we love, truly love, we love within the Love Who is God Himself. We participate in the divine nature of God Who is Love. Our joy, then, is what happens when we love as God loves us. Sometimes divine love looks like the creation of the universe. Sometimes it looks like Christ on a cross. What's the effect? Joy. Our joy at being saved from the darkness of sin and eternal death.

When Paul tells the Philippians to rejoice and to rejoice always, he also tells them to pray with thanksgiving “so that the peace of God that surpasses all understanding [may] guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” What are our hearts and minds being guarded against? Anxiety. Hopeless expectation. Despair. Praying in thanksgiving guards against those attitudes and dispositions that lead us to surrender our inheritance in exchange for. . .well, nothing. Nothing at all. Is your place at the Wedding Feast worth a life of anger? A life of disappointment and despair? The third Sunday of Advent serves as the Church's way of bringing our hearts and minds back to their most basic orientation: we are heirs, children, brothers and sisters, and nothing this world – or anyone in the Church – can do anything to change that. . .if we rejoice and rejoice always! So long as there is joy, there is love causing that joy. And whatever scandal or deception or crime that pops up must be seen through the eyes of joy. This too will pass. But God's love and our joy never will. We can thwart the Devil by giving God thanks for our trials. Has there been a perfect time for us to practice forgiveness? To show the world God's mercy? To love radically in the face of the Devil's best efforts to tempt us into self-righteous anger and despair?

God's prophet, Zephaniah, says, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you. . .” God is with us. He rejoices at our rejoicing. And He sings joyfully b/c we belong to Him. Nothing and no one can spoil this joy. Nothing and no one can turn our joy into mourning. As we wait on the Christ Child at Christmas and the Just Judge at the end of the age, we pray with thanksgiving; we ask and we receive; we rejoice and we love. And we sing with Psalmist: “I am confident and unafraid. My strength and my courage is the Lord!”

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