Sunday, December 12, 2010

Homily 3rd Sun. of Advent, Year A: Rejoice! The Lord is near!

    About three weeks ago, while I was in my hometown of Owensboro, KY spending time with my family during Thanksgiving break, I had the great pleasure of being able to baptize my twin brother's first born child. His name is Dominic Joseph Hardesty. That moment was very meaningful to me because I have always been very close to my twin brother, Nicholas, and I was able to baptize his son, at the parish we grew up in, Blessed Mother Church. His wife Amy's family, who are from Maine, were able to be there too and it was one of the first times that my extended family was able to see me "in action," so to speak, celebrating a sacrament with them 

    In the beginning of the ritual, I reminded Nick and Amy of the joy with which they welcomed their son as a gift from God, the source of life, who wishes to bestow his own life on their little one – then at his Baptism, and throughout his life through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. I asked them to think back to the moment when they discovered that Amy was pregnant, to recall the excitement and joy that they felt. And I asked them to call to mind how their longing and anticipation grew as their son grew more and more. And finally I asked them to remember the overwhelming joy and relief when Dominic was finally born and placed in their arms. As Nick and Amy were coworkers with God in giving him natural life, it was a great joy of mine to be a coworker with God in giving him supernatural life.

    This experience of a young married couple, of Christian joy and happiness, of longing and anticipation, is the same experience we should have today on this Third Sunday of Advent, a day that the Church calls Gaudete Sunday. This comes from the first word of today's Entrance Antiphon, "Gaudete," which means Rejoice! The Entrance Antiphon is a short verse found in the Missal which can be chanted as the Entrance hymn. The full verse says, Gaudéte in Dómino semper: íterum dico, gaudéte. Dóminus enim prope est.

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near." Against the backdrop of short, cloudy days and long, cold, rainy nights… against the backdrop of Advent violet symbolizing penance and good works which, though less intense than in Lent, are still a serious component of the Advent season… against the backdrop of a renewed awareness of our need for the Lord and the longing we have for his return… against all of these we have today a beacon of hope, symbolized by the rose-colored vestments we wear today. We can begin to see the rays of light beaming from the Star of Bethlehem, from the manger of the Son of God; it is Jesus Christ, the Light of Lights! He is near at hand! He is not far off now! Only two more weeks and he will be ours again! And what beautiful gifts he has in store for us!

    The prophet Isaiah foretold that even "the desert and the parched land" will exult. Even the dry land eagerly awaits the coming of the Spring of Living Water which is Jesus Christ. And when he finally comes, the land will exult and bloom! "Let the earth bless the Lord. Praise and exult him above all forever. Mountains and hills, bless the Lord. Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord!" But, as the Psalmist could ask, "Do you sons of men, bless the Lord?" How eagerly do we await his coming? If the earth and all of the Lord's creation can be filled, in a mystical way, with joy at our Lord's coming, we certainly can as well.

    But, I realize that precisely this time of year, when the Church asks us to be joyful in our time of waiting, can be a season of sorrow, of loneliness, of disappointment. For some of you this may be a time in which you mostly deeply feel the separation from a loved one who has died, or the desire for friendship or intimacy that has escaped you. Perhaps you may be feeling the stress of wanting to buy that perfect gift that you couldn't possibly afford. Perhaps this is one more Christmas in which your son or daughter in the military is fighting in a country worlds away. Or a relative could be right next door but still distant and estranged. I feel it myself sometimes, when I let papers pile up on me at the end of the semester and all I want to do is go home to Kentucky to see my family. I think these feelings happen in all of us in some way or another. But how is it that some blessed souls are able to maintain their joy leading to, during, and throughout the Advert and Christmas seasons while others experience such sadness? The difference is in where we choose to locate our happiness.

    Happiness is a lot like love – even though both can be very deeply felt they are essentially not feelings but acts of the will. In other words, when we let the grace of God empower our decisions we can choose to be happy, to receive happiness, to give happiness… just like we can with love. So, for example, with love: We may not feel very warm and fuzzy inside about the idea of having to sit at the bedside of an ailing grandparent or bringing food to the poor in the streets of Baltimore – but we do these anyway, even if they don't feel very good at all, because we have chosen to love, because we have chosen to make a sacrifice of ourselves for another person. It is the same with happiness – with God's grace, we can choose to be happy.

Turn back to my brother and his wife Amy for a second, if you don't mind. They had only been married for about a year, still newlyweds with much uncertainty. My brother is a Director of Religious Education at our home parish and his wife is a housewife. They had many questions and worries like all newlyweds do, but they did not let these interfere with the happiness they had for their first child. Think of Mary and Joseph, having to travel by camel while Mary was deeply pregnant, being rejected when they sought shelter, having to deliver the long-awaited Messiah in a feeding trough, in a cave. But, despite all of these difficulties, "it is not difficult for us to imagine Our Lady, in these days of Advent, radiant with joy at carrying the Son of God beneath her heart." She chose the happiness that comes from single-minded reflection on the nearness of the Lord. He is near to us today, He is close at hand, He truly is!

    If sadness dominates our own lives during this Advent or Christmas season, it is because we have taken our eyes away from Jesus Christ who is the unfailing, ever-present, ever-nearby source of happiness and joy even in the midst of trials and difficulties. A Christian who has his eyes always on the happiness that Jesus Christ offers – a happiness that does not come and go with our circumstances or our feelings, a happiness that is the bedrock of his life – will be able to endure difficulties in a different and better way than others. Those who take their eyes off of Jesus or choose other less dependable ways of achieving happiness are badly shaken and disturbed when difficulties come their way. But the one who keeps her eyes on Jesus Christ, will be able to endure difficulties with patience and calmness, with peace and serenity, because she knows the source of her happiness is still at her side, still close by, still hers to choose to accept and to give to others. We can choose despair or we can choose peace. The Lord is near, he is close at hand, offering us the choice. "There is no sorrow which he cannot alleviate." Today is the day in which we must choose happiness, not only for ourselves but for those who could receive happiness from us, if we could only offer it to them. "People need to be convinced that Christ has really been born in Bethlehem, and few things are more convincing than the habitual happiness of the Christian, even in the midst of pain and contradictions." If God has blessed you with an enduring happiness, never forget how great a gift that is and always be willing to share it.

    One of my favorite poems during Advent and Christmas is a poem by Robert Herrick. It is most often referred to by its first few words, "What sweeter music," and was made famous when it was composed as a hymn by John Rutter. The poem invites us to consider how miraculous it truly is that the Son of God, the Eternal Word, was made flesh and dwelt among us; how all creation was transformed and this transformation can take place in our own lives as well. Allow me to share this poem with you:

What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a Carol, for to sing
The Birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the Voice! Awake the String!
Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honor to this Day,
That sees December turn'd to May.

Why does the chilling Winter's morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?
Or smell, like a meadow newly shorn,
Thus, on the sudden? Come and see

The cause, why things thus fragrant be:
'Tis He is born, whose quick'ning Birth
Gives life and luster, public mirth,
To Heaven and the under-Earth.

We see Him come, and know Him ours,
Who, with His Sun-shine, and His Showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.

The Darling of the World is come,
And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome Him.

The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the Heart,
Which we will give Him; and bequeath
This Holly and this Ivy Wreath,
To do Him honor; who's our King,
And Lord of all this Revelling.

The miracle of Bethlehem, if you, if I, choose to accept it, can be the miracle of our very own hearts. If at the coming of the Lord, "the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them," then our own lives too can be transformed to see more clearly, to walk more steadily, to be healed of the infirmities of sin, to hear more loudly God's call, to have a heart raised up to him, and to know his peace and happiness. Today, let us put away all sadness, let us rejoice! For the Lord who has and will do these things and much more is near… is very near…

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