The way to true joy and peace this Christmas

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3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C: Dec. 13, 2009
Zeph 3:14-18; Isa 12:2-6; Phil 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18

John the Baptist is a striking figure in the Gospels: a man out in the desert near the Jordan River; clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; eating locusts and wild honey. As we heard last week in the gospel reading, when the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees came out to condemn him, he didn’t mince words. He called them a “brood of vipers,” and he told them about the judgment that would be coming. Now there’s a way to win friends and influence people!

It might sound like John the Baptist was a real “hellfire and brimstone” kind of preacher. But was he? The Gospel of Mark tells us [1:5] that people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized. Was everyone in the city of Jerusalem going out to listen to a “hellfire and brimstone” preacher? That doesn’t seem to tell the whole story, because the last verse in today’s gospel tells that John the Baptist preached good news to the people. Good news! What good news was he preaching?

  • It was good news that the Messiah was coming: one so great that, he said to the crowds, “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.”
  • It was good news, to a people occupied and taxed by the Roman Empire, that the Messiah would punish evildoers and set all things right.

What the people of Israel needed to do, John told them, was to make sure that they were not among those evildoers. They needed to repent: they needed to change their hearts and minds, and change their ways. They need to make sure that they would be among the wheat and not among the chaff. Then they would be prepared for the arrival of the Messiah that they were waiting for; then they would be prepared for the Advent of the Messiah that they were waiting for. And how they were longing for his coming.

Today, the Church has a message that we repeat from St. Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” “Rejoice.” And lest anyone miss the message, the Church even has us put on the liturgical color of rose, to emphasize it. Rejoice: this Sunday takes its name from this message. But how does this message—repeated year after year, century after century—sound to our ears today?

  • Does this message, “Rejoice,” sound old-fashioned and out-of-date? After all, we’re not living in the first century under the Roman Empire. We have democracy and credit cards. We have computers and iPhones. Do we need joy when we have Facebook and Twitter? We have microwaves to cook our dinners; airplanes to carry us around the world. Rejoice? “Come on! Inside, it’s like we’re one big smiley emoticon all the time.”
  • Or maybe St. Paul’s message of “rejoice” sounds different. Maybe it sounds impossible and naïve. These days, so many families are facing economic hardships, including families in our own parish. For those who are working, work and commuting is stressful. All of our relationships are so often strained or broken. And all this great electronic connectedness sometimes seems to drive us further apart. “Rejoice?” we might say. “What planet do you live on?”

In the year 2000, it was reported that 20 percent of Americans were depressed or unhappy. In 2005, there were 27 million Americans using antidepressants—more than 10 percent of the population. And that was 4 years ago.

And this year the Church continues to look right into these unhappy eyes, with love and compassion, and to say: Gaudete: Rejoice. The Lord is near. And, in the words of the first reading: Fear not; be not discouraged. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love.

This is not just another way of saying, “‘Tis the season to be jolly.” This is not a glittering veil of imagination to be pulled over the eyes of children this month, for as long as they are young enough to believe it. It is not a bunch of pretty decorations put up for a few weeks and then put back in boxes or to throw out on the curb.

When St. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi 19½ centuries ago, he was writing from prison, probably in Rome, awaiting his trial. And just a few verses after today’s reading in the fourth chapter [4:11-13], he writes: “I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be content. I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. … I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”

The Church has always offered joy to a world of chaos, hardship, and pain. And that joy has always been rooted in the invitation to encounter our Lord and to truly know him: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is the mighty one, mightier than John the Baptist who announced him; and he does baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, as John told us that he would. He will renew you in his love, as Zephaniah said. And so the Church can say, with St. Paul, Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.

But something has to come first. And this is what John the Baptist preached, again and again. He preached that we have to turn ourselves away from sin and toward the joy that Jesus offers. We have to make room in our hearts and minds for that joy. Which is to say, we have to repent. We have to change our hearts and minds; we have to change our ways. And we hear in today’s gospel that so many people responded to John’s invitation to change, and asked him how. “What should we do?” they asked. And he told them: if you have more food and clothing than you need, then give it to those who don’t have enough. “What should we do?” And he told them: stop using the authority of your job to extort from others, but act in true public service. “What should we do?” True repentance would show itself in the most concrete ways in their lives.

The presence of unconfessed and unforgiven sin in our lives infects and destroys the harmony and peace that the Lord wants to give us.

  • We were created for harmony with God; but unconfessed sin puts up a wall between us and him, making us hide from him out of shame at what he sees if he looks at us.
  • We were created for harmony with ourselves; but unconfessed sin makes us a walking contradiction. Because, while we’re surely doing good in some ways, we’re doing terrible evil in others.
  • We were created for harmony with other people; but sin poisons the love that we have for others, infecting our relationships with selfishness, impatience, betrayal, and isolation.

As long as there is sin in our lives, we will never be at peace, no matter how much we may have in terms of possessions or privileges. But with our sin forgiven, and those harmonies restored, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. As St. Paul tells us: “I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.”

Do you want to know this secret that St. Paul had learned? Do you want Christ’s peace and joy this Christmas?

Thanks be to God that Christ has made a way to free us from our sin. Thanks be to God that Christ restores his joy to us: through sacramental confession; through the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. This priceless gift is offered—without cost, without tax, without shipping and handling—in this parish every week: on Saturday afternoons, anytime by appointment, and often after weekday Mass. From today and for the next 9 days, there will be special opportunities for our children in the school and in PSR to go to confession. And right here, this Tuesday evening, December 15, at 7:30, we will gather back here for our Advent penance service. After we begin with an opening prayer together, there will be something like 6 or 8 priests available to hear your confession: Father David and me, and several others, at different points around the church.

Has it been a while, maybe a long while, since you went to confession? Then let me tell you something: if you come to me, and it’s been a while, you will absolutely make my day. When I hear, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it has been this long since my last confession,” when that number is more than a year, it makes my heart leap with joy. I know that in every confession our Lord uses me as his instrument to loose people from their sins; but when it’s been more than a year, I actually feel it. I feel our Lord undo those bonds; I feel him break those shackles, when I speak those words, “I absolve you from your sins.” If you want to give me a present this Christmas, fill my confession line with penitents who haven’t been to confession in a long, long time. For this, I was ordained a priest; for this joy, I was sent here. As Jesus said [Luke 15:7], “I tell you … there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.”

So please come to the penance service on Tuesday, and make room in your heart for our Lord to give you his own peace and joy this Christmas. And if you know someone who has been away from the sacraments for a long time, then please bring them too. You couldn’t give a better gift this Christmas to yourself and to those around you. 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, as one sings at festivals. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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Published in: on December 13, 2009 at 3:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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