3rd Sunday of Advent
Preached December 15, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Today the Church celebrates the joyful Sunday of Advent, but we might well wonder where we can find true joy in the midst of such dark times, when the world seems to be falling apart on all levels. We will not find true joy by denying the darkness of the times, nor by artificial celebrations, nor by escape into the pleasures and entertainments of the world. We will only find true joy if we learn to discover it in the truth. We need to enter into the depths of the word of God, the word that is always true and always sure.
Once again, our 1st reading is taken from the prophet Isaiah. We could say that Isaiah is the prophet of Advent.
Hidden behind our reading today lies one of the key passages of Isaiah’s prophecy, the passage in which he has the vision of God and of the seraphim around the throne of God, singing, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts. In that same vision Isaiah is commissioned as a prophet and given what seems a rather disturbing task. Instead of opening the eyes of the blind and making the deaf to hear, God tells him:
Go and say to this people: hearing, hear, and understand not; and see the vision, and know it not. Blind the heart of this people, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted and I heal them. (Is 6:9-10)
This is one of the hardest and most mysterious passages in Scripture. Surely God wants people to hear him, to know him, to understand, and to be converted? Surely, but Jesus himself quotes this very passage of Isaiah to affirm that his own words will have the same effect. (cf. Mt 13:14-15)
Nevertheless, this effect is not universal, for Jesus says to his disciples: Blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. For, amen I say to you many prophets and just men have desired to see what you see, and have not seen them; to hear the things that you hear, and have not heard them. (Mt 13:17)
The key question for each us will be: Will I be among those whose eyes are blessed because they see, or among those who hear the word, but do not understand?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples of John – not for John’s sake, but for their own – to report back what they see and hear. What they see and hear is the reverse of what Isaiah had been commanded, but the fulfillment of today’s prophecy. The deaf hear and the blind see and even more, the lepers are cleansed and the dead are raised. This all happened by a word of command from Jesus. All this was seen and heard. All this is a sign of the presence of the Kingdom of God.
Nevertheless, Jesus concludes on a curious note: Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me. Or more literally, Blessed is he that shall not be scandalized in me. If we are to be counted among the blessed who have eyes for seeing, then will have to keep from being scandalized by Jesus.
Why would anyone take offense at Jesus or be scandalized by him? Well, in his time they did take offense and they crucified him.
Today the scandal is more on account of the Church. People are scandalized by the Church, which leads them either to reject Jesus altogether, or want to separate him from the Church. The scandal is more on account of the Church, but in reality people are taking offense at Jesus, who he is, what he asks of us, and that he would make use of such a Church filled with sinners and even traitors. Really, the Church is just an excuse people use to reject Jesus.
People are scandalized when the Church teaches with the authority of Jesus because people do not want to hear and accept that authoritative doctrine – especially in matters of sex – because people want to do what they want to do. People are also scandalized because those who are supposed to do the teaching have so often undermined the credibility of the message by their inept, sinful, and even criminal conduct. People are also scandalized because the members of the Church do not seem to live differently and better than the general lot of humanity – in a word, they are sinners, not saints. It takes eyes that can see to see the true saints in our midst.
There is another scandal rather less known and recognized, but very widespread today: Many of those who are supposed to be teaching the word of God have instead falsified the word of God. As a result, instead of the Church speaking with a unified voice, there is confusion. The bishops in Germany say one thing, those in the United States another, those in Central Asia, something else. Here in the United States, if you pay attention, the bishops are not all in agreement, even on essential matters; neither are the priests.
This confusion is the result of the heresy of modernism about which I have spoken. At the heart of the confusion is the division between those who want to hold fast to what the Church has received from the Apostles and always taught and those who want to bring the teaching of the Church into line with the ideas of the contemporary world. At the heart of the confusion also is the division between those who think that the Church teaches the truth and those who think that no one has any special claim to the truth, especially not the Catholic Church, guilty as she seems to be of so many grievous crimes.
All of this makes it harder for the deaf to hear the word of Jesus and for the blind to see his face. It makes it harder for all of us to perceive his presence and activity in our present time. We are left saying, “Where are you, Lord?”
Last Sunday, the bishop spoke about hope, which is the source of joy, and how hope relies on faith. He talked about his own experience many years ago of trying to find a retreat house, St. Benedict’s Lodge, based on uncertain directions from a second-hand source. When his destination failed to appear, he began to doubt the directions he had been given, lose hope in arriving at his goal, and with the hope the joy began to vanish as well. When faith is shaken, hope turns to despair, and joy vanishes. The bishop’s personal story turned out well because he turned into a store, asked for directions, found he was actually on the right track and near to his goal, at which he soon arrived.
In the Church today, we find ourselves in a similar situation, a situation that indeed was experienced by the Apostles after one of Jesus’ miracles, the feeding of five thousand with five loaves and two fish. Jesus had commanded the Apostles to get into the boat alone and cross the sea. Jesus was not with them as they labored, in the middle of the night, without making progress against a contrary wind. Everything seemed lost, hope and joy were quickly disappearing, until Jesus himself came to them walking over the water. Jesus’ manner of coming to them provoked even more fear, until they heard Jesus’ words, It is I; be not afraid. (Jn 6:20) Then, before they could even take him into the boat, they found that they had reached the far shore.
What does all this mean for us here and now?
We must avoid being scandalized by Jesus, or by his Church; like the Apostles on the boat our faith is being put to the test and we must neither give up altogether, nor try to save our faith in Jesus by trying to separate him from his Church, his beloved Bride. We must persevere on the boat, in the Church, in the life of faith.
We need to know that our faith is not built upon some uncertain foundation but comes to us from the Apostles of Jesus Christ, who were eyewitnesses, and has been handed down to us through the sacred Tradition of the Church, guided and guaranteed by the Holy Spirit.
When the bishop was driving to St. Benedict’s Lodge his confidence in his directions was shaken because he had not expected the drive to take so long or the retreat house to be so deep in the mountains. It might help us to realize that all the reasons for scandal that surround us should not really be unexpected. Jesus talked about the weeds that would be sown amid the wheat by the enemy (cf. Mt 13:24-30;36-43); he also warned about the coming of false prophets and false messiahs. (cf. Mt 24:24)
We want to see the fulfillment, the blind seeing and the lame walking, but we are not there yet. Where are we on the road, so to speak?
Let’s go back to the words God spoke to Isaiah about the people failing to see with their eyes and hear with their ears. Isaiah responded by asking the Lord, How long? (Is 6:11) If we are keeping the faith in the midst of present-day distress that is the question that we will have: How long? How long must this go on? When will the day come? When will we arrive at the far shore?
The answer that Isaiah received did not seem not very encouraging. He was told that cities would be laid waste and the land left desolate. Last week the prophecy began a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse. (Is 11:1) Before the shoot could sprout forth, the tree needed to be reduced to a stump. Or, in terms of today’s 1st reading, before the steppe rejoices and blooms, the land must be reduced to a desert.
In terms of the life of the Church, we have witnessed ‘cities’ being laid waste, that is churches have been emptied of people and closed down. Certainly, it is not encouraging, but if we realize this is somehow part of God’s plan, that helps. God does indeed have a plan and all of this was foreseen by him. He is indeed putting our faith to the test.
This helps us realize that God does not abandon his people. We are not on the wrong road; we must continue in the Church; we must listen to the exhortation of the Apostle, be patient and steadfast, without complaining; we must persevere in the Church, faithful to Christ, until once again the shoot sprouts from the stump of Jesse, the steppe and the desert blooms.
In the meantime we need to discover that true hearing means hearing the word of the Lord with faith and putting into practice and true sight means contemplating in faith the face of Jesus. The life that is given to us now comes through the forgiveness of sins and the restoration to the life of grace, sharing in God’s own life, the beginning of eternal life here and now.
Long ago St. Peter told us: you should greatly rejoice, if now you must be for a little time made sorrowful in divers temptations: That the trial of your faith (much more precious than gold which is tried by the fire) may be found unto praise and glory and honour at the appearing of Jesus Christ. Whom having not seen, you love: in whom also now though you see him not, you believe and, believing, shall rejoice with joy unspeakable and glorified; Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls. (1 Pe 1:6-9)
In the meantime, we must also take to heart the exhortation of St. Paul, characteristic of this Joyful Sunday of Advent, and rejoice not in the world, but in the Lord.
Rejoice in the Lord always: again, I say, rejoice. Let your modesty be known to all men. The Lord is nigh. Be nothing solicitous: but in every thing, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your petitions be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. For the rest … whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline: think on these things. … and the God of peace shall be with you. (Ph 4:4-9)