The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gaudete in Domino semper

“Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep.”

Romans 12:15
Sunday, December 16, 2012
Third Sunday in Advent--C

Zephaniah 3:14-18a
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:10-18

“Rejoice!” St. Paul says in today’s second reading (in line with our Advent observance of “Gaudete Sunday” — Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice”).

How in the world are we supposed to rejoice in times like these—so full of suffering, evil, death?

Friday’s horrific reality in Connecticut resulted not only in the deaths of 27 people—most of them young innocents with now-extinguished futures—but also inflicted nightmarish wounds among survivors, relatives, and friends which will echo for a lifetime. There’s no getting around that pain and sorrow.

That unspeakable massacre grabs our attention because it is so concentrated into one time and place. Other horrors abound worldwide each day—almost at every moment. The slaughter of civil war continues in Syria. Violent unrest and repression persist in places like Afghanistan. Famine, pestilence, and scarcity of such necessities as water and medicine are the only realities generations of people in many under-developed regions have ever known.

Outwardly, this country enjoys relative peace and ease. Inwardly, though, it is at war. Addiction, sexual abuse, racism, and pure greed afflict untold thousands. Senseless violence, suicide, traffic accidents, cancer, and chronic illness wreak havoc with our lives. Homelessness, mental illness, unemployment, and poverty plague more people in this land of prosperity than we care to acknowledge. There is corruption and scandal. Spouses cheat on one another. Too many live by the adage, “If it feels good, do it,” while others suffer from despair, doubt, and loneliness.

Not fair. Why?

Right. I don’t know. Nobody does. None of it is God’s will (cf. Ezekiel 18:32).

Yet, for some reason we cannot begin to comprehend, God does allow it to occur. He respects our freedom of will enough to allow us to dwell, so to speak, in the muck we ourselves create (individually and collectively)—while many point fingers at one another and even blame the God some say doesn’t exist because he would never allow such horrors. It’s an age-old pattern humanity keeps repeating (cf. Genesis 3:12-13). Scripture itself is not immune. The Old Testament is bathed in blood. It is filled with the same sort of human ugliness we encounter today. We can’t help ourselves, and neither could those who came before us. It’s a wonder we’re allowed to exist at all—except that deep down, we know that in the beginning, we were created in the image of God, who is Love.

Something is obviously off.

Through it all, God beckons us through the voices of prophet after prophet, in effect saying, “My beloved children, have you had enough yet? Please, stop it. Turn back. Come to me. I will heal you, comfort you, forgive you, give you more than you can ask or imagine. Take my hand and come. I will lead you, though you cannot see. Do not be afraid. Trust me. Come to the feast.”

Few listen. One after one, prophets are killed for their words of wisdom. Finally, God himself comes among us. He inserts himself into the midst of the ugliness like a commando penetrating the enemy’s defenses to attack from within. He injects peace into the heart of war. He teaches. He works miracles. He leads.

And we kill him, too. But he's clever. He really dies, but he comes back—is resurrected (he told us he would, but we weren’t listening). God himself became sin, sucking up into himself all that pus oozing from disfigured humanity. Then, he allowed it to be destroyed forever in his body on a cross, so that like him, we might rise to new and eternal life, cleansed and transformed. Death is defeated. We are restored as children of God. What we can’t do for ourselves, God does for us.

That’s what they say, anyway. Thousands have taught that message, and suffered and died for it when they could just as easily have walked away and lived in relative ease. So, there must be something to it.

But the world is still a rotten place.

Yes, in some ways, perhaps.

Nothing’s really changed.

Hasn’t it? Do we see, know, understand everything that is, and will be—really?

What are we supposed to do, just ignore all the suffering and think happy thoughts all the time?

Of course not. That would be inhuman. As St. Paul says elsewhere, we must “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). And so we do. It is only right. At this very moment, God’s goodness is pouring out in myriad unseen ways upon the people of Newtown, Connecticut, through those who console them. God's goodness was present in those teachers and administrators who risked and/or lost their lives for the sake of their students.
But why does it seem to take something so horrific to occur, so many innocent people to suffer, before that goodness is exhibited?

Good question. I suspect that most of the time, it’s there, quietly working, but it often flies underneath our radar until something like this heightens our senses. God is present among us every day in innumerable ways. We must look for the good, even amid the horrendous, and trust that somehow, he’s straightening out what we have made crooked.

But if death was defeated forever on the cross, why do the innocent still suffer? Why doesn’t God just put an end to it?

Another good question. Perhaps the 11th Chapter of John’s Gospel holds some clues. Jesus’ good friend Lazarus is sick. Although he works miracles for many others whom he barely knows, Jesus does nothing. Lazarus dies. Jesus travels to meet Lazarus’ family and friends. The mourners, including Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha, ask Jesus in effect, “Why didn’t you do anything?”

Then we are hit with possibly the two most powerful words in all of Scripture: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He mourns with those who mourn. God suffers with us.

Then, he does something amazing—he raises Lazarus back to life. All this is meant to foreshadow Jesus’ own death, and by extension, each of ours. Shortly thereafter, Jesus is crucified while people around him say, “Save yourself! Why don’t you do anything?” Jesus cries out, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34). God’s mercy descends on the undeserving, and three days later, there is an astonishing exclamation point: His Resurrection, and by extension, the promise of resurrection for each of us.

It is beyond our comprehension: God allows unspeakable evil and brings about unimaginable good. In the end, we are told, all will be ordered as it should be, as it was meant to be from the beginning, through the Alpha and the Omega (cf. Revelation 21:1-7).

So, everybody’s “off the hook”?

Not by a long shot. Christ crucified gives meaning to what otherwise is pure madness, decay, and death. As the French poet Paul Claudel said, “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it, but to fill it with his presence.” He became part of our suffering, part of humanity’s story, in order to redeem it from within, and thereby involve us in his divine work of redemption. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus said (John 12:32).

So, this is our story, too. It is the whole point of the Incarnation. As his disciples, we are called to make Christ present in the world through Word, Sacrament, and the example of a holy life, and to trust that somehow, God is redeeming the moment in a manner we can’t fully recognize or comprehend. That is our faith, though we are not always faithful.

Like the crowds in today’s Gospel reading, we may then ask: “What should we do?”

What are we told in today's Gospel? Share your food and clothing with those who have none. Be honest. Put away all greed, extortion, and treachery.

In addition, the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament tell us: Love the Lord your God above all else. Revere him. Worship him. Honor your parents. Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not covet anyone or anything (Exodus 20:2-17).

In the New Testament, Jesus tells us that the blessed include those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:3-10).

To sum it all up, Jesus says simply, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another” (Matthew 22:37, 39; John 13:34-35).

Because it is humanly impossible for us to do this all the time, he died for us on the cross in loving self-sacrifice. But because he died for us on the cross, we must strive to do as he commands. Apart from him, it is true that we can do nothing (cf. John 15:5). But all things are possible for God (cf. Matthew 19:26). It is a work he begins and ends, but by the grace of God, it is one we participate in as the Body of Christ.

And so, as that Body, we pray together during Mass the words Jesus taught us to pray:

Our Father,
who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come,
they will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Moments later, we sing together, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us/grant us peace,” while the consecrated bread is snapped and broken into many pieces to be shared and consumed by each one of us. In us, those many pieces constitute the one Body of Christ, and so we are sent out: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

Though we must still live with our wounded nature—our clay jars—we carry forth the treasure we have received in Christ “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2Corinthians 4:7-10).

Because of this, we rejoice, on this day and every day, even in times like these—especially in times like these, even as we weep with those who weep. Together, “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ,” who is with us always, until the end of the age (cf. Matthew 28:20). As St. Paul (who, incidentally, was writing from prison) says in today’s second reading:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” [Though not contained in today's Mass reading, the next verse continues: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."]
We rejoice because while time is still unfolding the history of salvation, the moment has been redeemed in eternity. We rejoice because we believe that throughout it all, the holy innocents dance with delight around the Christ child. In harmony, these “eternal imitations” of Christ (Charles Peguy) rejoice in the hope that is stored up in heaven for all of us. 



Holy Innocents, you died before you were old enough to know what life means.
Pray for all children who die young, that God may gather them into his loving arms.

Holy Innocents, you were killed because one man was filled with hatred.
Pray for those who hate, that God may touch their hearts and fill them with love.

Holy Innocents, you experienced a violent death.
Pray for all who are affected by violence, that they may find peace and love.

Holy Innocents, your parents grieved for you with deep and lasting sorrow.
Pray for all parents who have lost young children that God may wrap a warm blanket of comfort around them.

Holy Innocents, those around you certainly felt helpless to prevent your deaths.
Pray for all who feel helpless in their circumstances, that they may cling to God for courage and hope.

Holy Innocents, you who are now in heaven, pray for all of us,
that one day we may join you there to bask in God’s love forever.


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