Friday, December 03, 2010

The Vision and the Fire of Advent

St. Francis Xavier 1506-1552

(Friday of the First Week of Advent, Feast of St. Francis Xavier; This homily was given on 3 December, 2010 at the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Leuven, Belgium; See Isaiah 29:17-24, Psalm 27 and Matthew 9:27-31)

We have already come now almost one quarter of the way through the Advent Season, and our readings today encapsulate the message of what it means to be a people waiting for the revelation of God in Christ. We wait in hope for the vision of God who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, God incarnate.

In our first reading the Prophet Isaiah anticipates this vision when he announces boldly that “out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see” (Isaiah 29:18). When the Messiah comes He will open the eyes of all to see the beauty and the power of God.

The Psalmist speaks of that same longing and yearning when he sings of his great desire to “gaze on the loveliness of the Lord and contemplate his temple” (Psalm 27:4). It is not enough for us to hear about God or simply to know a great deal about Him. No, we long to see Him and to look upon His loveliness even here, “in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13).

One of the most beautiful prayers in the liturgy is found in the Christmas Season, which we will enter in a few short weeks. One of the Prefaces for the Eucharist Prayer in the Christmas Season offers this wonderful prayer to God:

In the wonder of the incarnation
your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith
a new and radiant vision of your glory.
In him we see our God made visible
and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.

The eternal Word who is Christ has brought to our eyes of faith that new and radiant vision of God. When Christ comes to dwell among us as a man we finally catch a glimpse of the God who we know loves us and whom we could never see had He not revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel today shows us this reality in a striking and vibrant way. Those two men beg Christ to heal them and restore their sight. The very first thing—or better, Person—they see when their request is granted and their eyes are opened is the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. What longing, what yearning we have to see Him as we await the coming of Christ this Advent!

Truth be told, this is the very mission and vocation of the Christian: to see God and be swept up in this “new and radiant vision,” to have our eyes opened to His glory and His unsurpassable mercy. Then we cannot help but go out into the world and proclaim His wonders so that the eyes of all may be opened to that same vision of God. We want all the word to see what we have seen and to taste what we have tasted in the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ.

But to do that we have to be able to see what God sees when He looks at us and at the world we live in. We have to see the sin that is inevitably a part of our daily struggle, but even more we need to see ourselves and those around us not only as sinners but as men and women loved infinitely by God. We need to see the men and women whom God is willing to suffer and die for. You have heard the expression before: hate the sin but love the sinner. We separate the sin from the sinner and try to see as God sees.

One of the great temptations and dangers of the disciple of Christ is to take both of those realities together—the sin and the sinner—and to despise them both. Our worst days as disciples are often the times when we fail in this regard. When we do that, seeing only sinful people doing sinful things, then we also risk losing the vision of God Himself. We can no longer see Him clearly and all that He desires for us to behold as we follow and serve Him.

Such was the temptation which St. Francis Xavier faced, whose feast we celebrate today. Francis Xavier was sent by St. Ignatius of Loyola to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of the East Indies. By no means was he the first person to do that. In our tradition it is St. Thomas the Apostle who is sent by Christ Himself to bring the Gospel to the people of India. St. Francis Xavier would follow in the footsteps of countless men and women who tirelessly and faithfully brought the Gospel to those who longed to hear it.

But what he encountered when he arrived there was not only the fruit of the fidelity of the missionaries that had gone before him. He also encountered the infidelity of the followers of Christ who had long forgotten the Gospel they were sent to proclaim. He encountered, along with many zealous and praiseworthy disciples, also clergy who had given cause for scandal and the brutality not only of the pagans in that land but especially of the many Christians who should have known better. One account tells how “when slaves were atrociously beaten, their masters counted out the blows on the beads of their rosaries” (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, IV).

How would you and I have responded to such brutality? What would have been our attitude as missionaries in that strange and mysterious place? The response of St. Francis Xavier was one of tears almost to the point of blindness, but not the kind we would first think. He writes to his spiritual father, St. Ignatius of Loyola:

“The dangers to which I am exposed and the tasks I undertake for God are springs of spiritual joy, so much so that these islands are the places in all the world for a man to lose his sight by excess of weeping: but they are tears of joy.”

St. Francis Xavier saw the sin that was rampant in that place and he saw the atrocities and the squalor that comes with the loss of the vision of God, but he also saw the countless souls whom God loved so dearly, and that made all the difference. His heart was on fire with that same love that sent Christ to the cross, willing to die for our salvation, and Francis Xavier was overwhelmed with love to the point of tears; he was nearly blinded by the tears of joy that flowed from a heart on fire with the love of Jesus Christ.

That is precisely why St. Ignatius sent him to the East Indies to begin with. After serving faithfully by Ignatius’ side following his ordination to the priesthood, Francis Xavier was not immediately sent out into the missions. He waited and longed to preach the Gospel but year after year that assignment never came. Finally, one day, Ignatius released him with the now famous exhortation, “Go and set the world on fire!” St. Francis Xavier went and did exactly that.

It is the fire of the Holy Spirit, and only that fire, that has the power to renew the Church in the time of St. Francis Xavier and in our own time today. It is only the fire of divine love that can so inflame us to hate the sin and love the sinner as we proclaim Christ unreservedly to the world we live in.

May we come to know that love here in this place as we prepare to receive Him in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. May we see here in the Eucharist that “new and radiant vision” of the glory of God and come to know Him in whom “we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.” May our eyes be opened to that vision and may God send us out from this place to set the world on fire.