Sunday, December 11, 2005

Gaudete! Rejoice!

(3rd Sunday of Advent-Year B;This homily was given 11 December, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

It is Gaudete Sunday once again! The pink candle has been lit in joyful expectation of the coming of Christ. Gaudete Sunday is the Church’s way of reminding us that the coming of Christ is near, very near. No matter how hectic things may be in our lives, today is a day to slow down, think about what this season is all about, and to rejoice.

There is a story about a woman who had a long list of friends for whom she really wanted to buy Christmas presents. Time slipped away and she soon realized there was no way she could get to the store to purchase those gifts. As a last resort she decided to send them all a really nice card.

She went to the gift store and looked over the cards that were left, and finally found a box of 50. They were beautifully decorated on the front, and she was in a hurry so she bought them. Not bothering to look at the message inside, she quickly signed them and sent them out just in time for Christmas.

Around New Year’s, she had time to go back to two or three cards she didn’t send from that stack, and she was shocked when she read the message inside. It said, in a nice little rhyme:

This Christmas Card is just to say
A little gift is on the way

This morning we could borrow that same rhyme, and change it just a bit:

This Gaudete Sunday is just to say
A tremendous Gift is on the way

John the Baptist, in the Gospel this morning, can hardly contain himself as “the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.” Christ is near, the One we are waiting for; He is on the way, and so we too cannot help but to rejoice!

But if we really stop and think for just a minute: How can we rejoice when there is so much suffering and sorrow in the world we live in? What are we to make of the tragedies that fill the evening news and the pages of the newspaper each day? When we say to each other, “Rejoice!” are we not deluding ourselves and hiding from the real problems that exist all around us?

The other day I was speaking with a priest friend of mine from the Diocese of Savannah, in Georgia. There was a terrible tragedy there; one of his parishioners—an elderly woman—was murdered one week ago. Her funeral was held on Thursday, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The pastor was the one who celebrated that funeral, and I asked my friend: “what did he say?” What could you say in a situation like that, just before Christmas? He told me that the pastor talked about how the world we live in is in desperate need of a redeemer. Then he talked about how we’ve got one: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of Mary.

We do not rejoice because we are hiding from the reality of the world around us. We understand that reality; all too well do we understand it. But we believe in the One who has come to change that reality and to change the world as we know it.

We rejoice because the Son of God became man and brought us hope; and most of all we rejoice because we know that this life, this world, is not all there is; we know the rest of the story, and we know how that story will end.

Once, during the Second World War, there were two friends from Scotland who were taken prisoner and placed in a concentration camp. One of them was a professor and the other was a chaplain.

A high wire fence in the middle of the prison separated the Americans from the British, so the guards placed the professor on the American side and the chaplain on the other side with the Brits. Everyday, the professor would talk to his friend through the wire fence, speaking in the Gaelic language that the Germans did not understand.

Unknown to the guards, the Americans had a little homemade radio and were able to get news from the outside. One day news came over the radio that the German high command had surrendered. The war was over. The professor took that news to his friend and then watched him disappear into the barracks. A moment later a roar of celebration came from that place.

Life in the camp was completely transformed. The men walked around singing and shouting, waving at the guards and even laughing at the dogs that growled nearby. When the Germans finally heard the news three days later, they fled in the night and left all the gates open. The next morning the prisoners walked out free men. But in reality they were already free days earlier, when they heard the news that the war was over.

This Gaudete Sunday we rejoice in the Lord, who has already begun to set us free. We are not afraid to proclaim our faith with confidence to a world that is in desperate need of a redeemer, because we know that God—in Christ—has already given us one.

Are there tremendous problems in the world we live in? Of course there are. And we are called to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering of those around us, to mourn with those whose lives have been shattered by tragedy or sorrow.

But at the same time, we have reason to rejoice because God has come into this world and set in motion the events that will bring an end to all these things. Death and war and disease and sorrow and suffering will not have the final word. God will speak the final Word, and He has spoken it. The final Word is Christ.

Isaiah the prophet, in our first reading this morning, announces with great joy the words that will ring in the coming of the Messiah; they are words of prophecy, words of longing, but most of all they are words of hope:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners.
—Isaiah 61:1-2a

We can ask ourselves: Where are the poor in our lives who are waiting to hear those glad tidings, the Good News of Christ? Who are the broken hearted in need of a word of hope and healing? Who are the captives, held bound by a world of empty promises and meaningless pursuits? Christ is calling us this Gaudete Sunday to share with them the reason we rejoice.