3rd Sunday of Advent

Preached December 16, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

To be honest, the message of today’s Mass, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Advent’s Sunday of Joy, might be a bit irritating. Rejoice in the Lord always!

One person might respond, “Look, I am just feeling down today and it is not in my power to ‘rejoice’.” Another person might answer, “Look, today the doctor just informed me that I have cancer, what to you mean by ‘rejoice’?” Someone else, “My wife just passed away, how could I rejoice?” Another might say, “There is nothing so annoying as smiley faced Christians running around telling everyone to rejoice in a world that is so filled with tragedy and sorrow.” Indeed, every Christian ends up facing moments of guilt because well, he is being told to ‘rejoice always’ and right now he just doesn’t feel like it.

Guilt – guilt also seems to stand in the way of rejoicing. The modern world got rid of the concept of sin because it didn’t like guilt. But if you look around you will see that people today, people with no faith, are just as guilt ridden as ever; maybe even more so. They feel guilty because they smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol or eat too much, or eat the wrong things. They feel guilty because they are too fat. They feel guilty because they use plastic bags or straws. They feel guilty because their carbon footprint is too big. They feel guilty because their thoughts are not politically correct. The modern world has not succeeded in getting rid of guilt; it has only succeeded in getting rid of forgiveness. Instead of the sacrament of penance, we have the vengeance of twitter mobs, or maybe public confession to Oprah Winfrey. Maybe the obstacle to true joy is not guilt, but guilt about the wrong things, lack of repentance about the right things, and lack of forgiveness.

Well, maybe we need to rethink this whole ‘joy’ thing in order to see its connection with repentance.

If we think about it, joy is closely connected with love, but both joy and love can be misdirected.

Think about it: someone who loves wine enjoys drinking wine. If he loves wine too much, he will enjoy drinking it too much as well; even if he regrets it when he wakes up the next day with a headache. We might say that when we love someone or something ‘joy’ is the experience we have when we enjoy the presence of someone we love, or the use of something we love.

Now in our confused age clear thinking is hard to come by. We are bombarded with the idea that love is good and hate is bad. It is not so simple; whether we want it or not, love lies at the root of all our actions; hate flows from love.

We need to make some distinctions in order to think clearly about love. There is love of the will and then there is emotional love; likewise there is a willed and deliberate hate, then there is the emotional feeling of hate. Then there is the object of our love; that is whatever draws our emotional love or those things or persons that we choose to love, or to which we commit our will. The object of our loves is what defines our loves, makes them to be good or bad, ordered or disordered.

The adulterer has pledged his love to one person, his wife, but gives his love to another person, his mistress, in violation of his pledge. His love for his mistress is a disordered love, a bad love. If he repents, rejects his mistress, and returns to his wife, we might call his rejection of his mistress a sort of well-ordered hatred. Indeed, the mistress, feeling the rejection as hatred might complain to her former lover, “Why do you hate me so?”

In any case, to put the matter as simply as possible, when love is well-ordered, the person first commits his will to God, above all things, then he has concern for himself in subordination to God, next he has concern for the good of his neighbor as for his own; so also he will hate what is opposed to God’s will, and, in due order, what is opposed to his own good and the good of his neighbor. Note well, he will not hate the persons, but what is opposed to their good, above all falsehood and sin. Next, emotional love needs to be subordinated to the love of the will. Love of things needs to be subordinated to a rightly ordered love of persons. The objective order of truth determines the right order of love.

Now, back to the words of St. Paul: Rejoice in the Lord always.

He is not talking about any sort of joy. He is not talking about emotional joy. Some people, simply by their physical makeup, feel the joyful emotions more readily than others. Those joyful emotions can lead them to bad things or can assist them in doing good, but by themselves are neither good nor bad.

Rejoice in the Lord always. St. Paul is writing about the joy of the will that cleaves to God in love through Jesus Christ, the Lord. He is saying, in effect: “Commit yourselves in love to Jesus Christ; let him be your supreme delight let him be your joy.”

Now, we can also see how guilt, repentance, forgiveness fits in to the picture here.

There is no need to feel guilty if we are not bubbling over with joyful emotions – especially when we are tired. Nevertheless, the guilty conscience – which is not a mere feeling, but a judgment of the mind – shows us that we have we have turned away from the Lord in one way or another; the guilty conscience shows us that we have not been faithful to his love; that we have, in fact, rejoiced in something apart from the Lord, apart from a rightly ordered love. That is a cause of sorrow, but of sorrow that can lead to life and to joy if it leads to repentance. Repentance prepares us to receive God’s forgiveness, which removes the obstacles to true joy.

When a person repents he turns his will away from his disordered pursuit and turns it back towards the path of right conduct; he changes his life. Repentance is not wishful thinking; repentance is effective.

In today’s Gospel, St. John the Baptist gives examples of true repentance. Stop hoarding and start sharing; stop skimming off the top; stop engaging in violence and fraud. Be satisfied with your wages. All of the Baptist’s examples deal with injustices that arise from an excessive preoccupation for material well-being; repentance requires a reordering of the will to be content with what we truly need. Jesus puts it this way, Work not for the bread that perishes, but for the bread that endures for eternal life. (Jn 6:27) In other words, Rejoice in the Lord always, for he is the Bread of life.

Once we are delivered from our preoccupation with material well-being and from whatever else holds us back from giving ourselves completely to Jesus Christ, with mind and will, body and soul, we will even be able to rejoice in the Cross of Christ.

By itself, devoid of meaning, devoid of any relation to Jesus Christ, suffering is hardly a source of joy. Nevertheless, once we learn to rejoice in the Lord we can also rejoice when we discover that through suffering, through sharing in his Cross, we draw nearer to him. If we love Jesus, then we will rejoice to share what belongs to him and what belonged to him in this world was the Cross.

Indeed, the Cross purifies our joy. It is easy to rejoice when the Lord gives us consolations, but when he gives us suffering and we are able to rejoice in him, then we know that our joy is truly in him, not in the consolations we receive from him.

At the Last Supper, before leaving to the Garden of Gethsemane, after a long farewell talk to his disciples, Jesus said, I have told you this that you may have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world. (Jn 16:33) Just as joy and love go hand in hand, so joy and peace also. When we have peace in Christ, we have joy in Christ, whatever we may suffer in the world.

St. John the Baptist said that Jesus Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It is the same baptism; the Holy Spirit purifies us with the fire of divine love so that we might have pure joy in Jesus Christ.

St. Paul writes about the fruits of the Holy Spirit and the first three are love, joy, and peace. (cf. Gal 5:22). If you want the fruit first the tree must be planted in you; if you want the fruit, first you must let the Holy Spirit, received in baptism, strengthened in confirmation, work freely within you, leading you on the path of repentance of sin, love of Christ, and fidelity to the will of God. The more we let the Holy Spirit lead us on this path, the more we let the Holy Spirit transform our wills in the fire of divine love, the more we will begin to enjoy all the fruits of the Holy Spirit, the more we will rejoice in the Lord through the practice of patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity. (Gal 5:22-23; cf. Compendium of Catechism, Appendix)

We will even be able to say with St. Paul: May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. (Gal 6:14) When we reach that point we will be able to rejoice in the Lord always. We will be ready for the Lord when he comes.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.