Sunday, December 11, 2016

Stirring Up Joy (Advent 3.A)

A couple of years ago a talented friend was doodling in her notebook and handed a simple drawing of me. I thought the sketch needed more hair, but that wasn’t what worried me most. My expression was very severe—it was a portrait of what Pope Francis calls a “sourpuss” in his letter on the Joy of the Gospel.

That little drawing has been on my desk ever since, as a reminder that the Good News of Jesus Christ should put a smile on our face: it’s not for “sourpusses.”

The Church reminds us of this every year on the third Sunday of Advent and on the fourth Sunday of Lent. The liturgy on these days highlights the joy of knowing Jesus and the blessings he brought to earth.

And the tradition of wearing rose-coloured vestments reminds priests not to take themselves too seriously!

Communicating the joys and blessings of following Christ isn’t easy. Even Pope Francis has written “how I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction!”

The prophet Isaiah faced the same challenge as Pope Francis. How do you put the glory and goodness of God into words?

In our first reading, Isaiah uses inspired images to put fresh hope into the discouraged exiles of Israel, who doubt that God will ever bring them home from Egypt. He paints a picture of a new Garden of Eden where even the weak and the injured will be strengthened for the journey. The great homecoming is the second Exodus, accompanied by singing and dancing just as Moses and Miriam and the people sang and danced after crossing the Red Sea.

What does this Old Testament text mean for us? In the first place, we hear about this second exodus in Advent, because both the first and the second Exodus foreshadow the coming of the Messiah. The Church hopes to fire us up with some of the enthusiasm that the Jews had when they heard this powerful promise of joy and gladness.

On the other hand, we need to translate Isaiah’s words into the reality of our lives. The promises made to Israel weren’t literally fulfilled when the Chosen People returned to Jerusalem. The desert wasn’t blooming with flowers and the lame still had to be carried. What the people heard was a promise of deliverance—a promise that God would show his glory during their journey to freedom.

The same thing is true of this morning’s Gospel. Jesus knew that no words could completely capture his mission of salvation. He uses actions—giving sight to the blind, healing the lame, cleansing lepers and so on—that show sorrow and sadness melting before God’s love.

It’s obvious that physical healings are no longer the way we proclaim the saving mission of Christ, although they are never absent from the life of the Church. So we, like the Israelites, need to understand what Christ’s coming does mean, if not the healing of disabilities and the appearance of flowers in the desert.

How do we stir up our enthusiasm and become full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction, as the Pope says? Because if we do not, we will never truly know the joy that comes from living in faith.

There are some great answers to this question in the Word of God we listen to today. The first comes from St. James in our second reading. Be patient! Be patient with God and most of all, be patient with yourself. God’s timing is not our own, and many people have given up on God because he seemed to be so slow in bringing them the freedom for which they prayed long and hard.

I think Jesus makes the same point in today’s Gospel reading when he says “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” He may well have added, “Because I’m God, and you’re not.”

On this point, Pope Francis says “While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in.”

We find a second answer in the Gospel: go and tell others what you have seen. Nothing fuels enthusiasm so much as sharing it. It’s been ten years since I finished my doctorate, and I can’t say I think about my research very often. But when I had the chance to speak about my work at a recent meeting of priests, I was so keen it was hard to shut me up.

And telling others doesn’t only mean speaking. Those who volunteer to help with the Alpha course—and we have another Alpha coming in February—know how it fires up their own faith. Those who support the candidates in our RCIA program know the same thing.

It can also mean encouraging others. “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong! Do not fear! Here is your God.’” Among the spiritual works of mercy are counselling the doubtful and comforting the sorrowful; when we strengthen others in their fear and anxiety, we put our own faith to work. The Christian shouldn’t see God working only in his or her life, but in the lives of others.

Finally, we need to pray for the gift of a joyful heart. Pope Francis writes that we need to ask Jesus for grace every day, “asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence. … How much good it does us when he once more touches our lives and impels us to share his new life!”

That means opening our hearts, especially if there is a door that’s closed to the Lord. Yesterday morning, our janitor Robert couldn’t open an outside door at the back of the church. It was frozen shut. But he just had to wait for the day to warm up before he could get in.

Our hearts should be warmed by the Word of God today—by Christ’s healing mission, by the history of God leading his people from slavery to the Promised Land, by the hope-filled images of blossoms in the desert; in our hearts—which is to say in our prayer—we should be singing the song of ransomed people with joy and gladness.

Pope Francis provides the perfect ending for this homily. After asking himself how he can find the right words to stir up fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction he says this: “Yet I realize that no words of encouragement will be enough unless the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts.”

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