Sunday, December 17, 2006

Harmony, Joy and the Holy Spirit

(3nd Sunday of Advent-Gaudete Sunday-Year C;This homily was given 17 December, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Zephaniah 3:14-18, Luke 3:10-18 and CCC #376)

It has been said that the easiest teaching of our faith to prove is the doctrine of original sin. All one has to do is read the morning paper or watch the evening news—or, perhaps at this time of the year, take a nice ride up and down Bald Hill Road and the Mall parking lot—and you can’t help but see the effects of original sin. It can become so familiar, in fact, that we sometimes forget that God never intended for us to live that way.

If you go all the way back to the Book of Genesis and the story of creation, there is a description of the original state of man, what the Council of Trent calls “original justice” or “original holiness.” That state has often been described quite beautifully and even musically as a state of harmony. There was harmony between the created world and God; there was harmony between the first man and first woman; and there was harmony deep within the human person (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #376).

Think, for a moment, how many times in a day you feel yourself being pulled in a hundred different directions; that is not the way God intended us to be. We were created for harmony. Perhaps you have been to a philharmonic orchestra before, or something like it. Dozens of different instruments and a cacophony of notes and chords all combine to produce a magnificent symphony that reaches right into the depths of our souls. That is an image for the way we were created.

That harmony, of course, was shattered by original sin. Suddenly there was discord, disharmony in the universe, in our relationships, and deep within our own souls. Yet at this time of the year, in a particular way, we celebrate the God who chose to enter directly into that discord. Jesus Christ is the one who enters into the world torn by original sin in order to bring us back into harmony with God and with each other.

We can see that musical story of salvation played out in a wonderful way in our first reading this morning, from the prophet Zephaniah. The Book of Zephaniah is one of the shortest books of the Old Testament, and it carries a hard message indeed. Against the backdrop of Israel’s idolatry, Zephaniah announces the impending judgment of God and the imminent Day of the Lord.

But the section we hear this morning comes at the end of that book, and Zephaniah announces to the people that the judgment of God is now over, and the time has come to sing. He says,

Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has removed the judgment against you.
—Zephaniah 3:14-15

But more than that, Zephaniah announces that God Himself will come among them, and He Himself will sing!

The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness . . .he will sing joyfully because of you.
—Zephaniah 3:17

It is a prophesy about the Messiah, who would come to bring harmony between God and His people once again. It is the song of salvation, and one that all of us are called to participate in. We are all called to sing that song.

St. Paul, in our second reading, says:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice!
—Philippians 4:4

The Latin word for “rejoice” is Gaudete, and it is where we get the title for this Third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday. This Gaudete Sunday, we can ask ourselves: What does St. Paul mean when he tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always”? What does it mean to say that we should all “sing the song of salvation”?

What if we do not feel like singing? What if we have seen and experienced enough of the effects of original sin in our own lives that we scarcely feel like rejoicing? Is St. Paul encouraging us to have a Pollyanna-type attitude, to pretend that we do not live in a world where there is suffering and pain? I would suggest today that St. Paul is talking about something much deeper than that.

I was at a party recently, and a person asked me quite directly: “Are you happy?” There were several other people standing nearby, and most of them stopped what they were doing to hear the answer to that question. There is an expectation (obsession?) in our culture that we should all be happy, all the time, and that if we are not happy then there must be something wrong. I thought about the question for about 5 seconds, and then I answered: “No, I am not happy. I have had a number of events happen in my life today that are not “happy” things, so I am not happy . . . but I am joyful.”

He asked me, “What’s the difference?” And I went on to explain that happiness comes from the circumstances we find in our lives; it happens as a result of the people around us, or it can be based upon the way we feel at any given moment of the day. But joy is different. Joy does not come from us, or from the people around us, or from the circumstances of our lives. Joy is a supernatural gift, and it comes from God.

God is able to give us joy regardless of the circumstances of life. God can give us joy in the midst of all kinds of situations and experiences that are not “happy.” Joy is a supernatural gift that comes to us from God Himself.

St. John the Baptist, in the Gospel this morning, talks about that supernatural gift. He denies that he is the Messiah, and is quick to point out that he himself has come only to baptize with water. But with the Messiah, it will be different:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
—Luke 3:16

Think about the day of Pentecost, when the disciples received those tongues of fire and were filled with the gift of the Holy Spirit. God set their hearts on fire with the gospel, and they rejoiced abundantly in Him. Following that day, they were to go through all kinds of trials and tribulations.

All of the Apostles—with the exception of St. John—were martyred. The Church was persecuted without mercy. They were despised by everyone in the world around them. But they were absolutely filled with joy! They had been given the supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of God Himself, and they overflowed with joy.

St. Philip Neri, the great Italian priest who has often been called the “Apostle of Joy” has a great way of expressing this very truth. He says, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.” When you see joy in the life of a Christian, then you know that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in that person’s life.

The Christian preacher and author, Walter B. Knight, put it this way: “Joy is the flag that flies over the castle of our hearts, announcing that the king is in residence today.” What a beautiful way of acknowledging that the joyful life of the Christian has its point of origin not in us, but in God. The people of Israel in the Book of Zephaniah do not sing because they are happy. They sing because “the king is in residence,” because He has come among them and brought harmony and joy into their lives.

This Gaudete Sunday, we ask God for that same grace and that same supernatural gift in our own lives. Might God raise the flag over the castle of our hearts, so that those around us may recognize that the King lives here. And may we listen and heed St. Paul’s exhortation to "rejoice in the Lord," not just when we are happy, but to "Rejoice in the Lord always."