Sunday, December 17, 2017

Year B Third Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isa 61:1-2a.10-11; Luke 1:46-50.53-54; 1 Thes 5:16-24; John 1:6-8.19-28

Today we celebrate the Third Sunday of Advent or Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word that means Rejoice! We call this Sunday Gaudete Sunday because the entrance antiphon for Mass today is taken from the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The antiphon exhorts us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.” After this exhortation, the antiphon ends with these words: “Indeed, the Lord is near” (see Phil 4:4-5).

Advent means either “coming” or “arrival.” We know the Lord has come, has died, risen, and ascended, promising to return. He sent his Holy Spirit as the mode of his presence in us and among until he comes. Our lives as Christians, therefore, can best be described as living the tension between the already of the Lord’s Incarnation and the not yet of his glorious return.

The season of Advent reflects this tension. From the beginning of the season until today, we look forward to Christ’s return at the end of time. Beginning with the Third Sunday, Advent pivots as we begin look back towards Christ’s first arrival. He arrived in the world as a marginal person among a marginal a people who had long been subjected to foreign occupation. He arrived as an infant, born in a cave where animals lived, wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough. Jesus was not born in a nice, clean, well-lit place. He was born in a smelly, dirty, dark and dank place.

I sometimes think that instead of drawing us deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation, our Nativity scenes obscure its reality by reducing faith to mere sentiment. In case you didn’t notice, we have two Gospel readings today. Our Responsorial Psalm is taken from Mary’s Magnificat, which is found in Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 1:46-55). Mary says of the Lord’s coming: “He will fill the hungry with good things and the rich he will send away empty.” In this regard, it bears noting that the spiritual fruit of the Third Mystery of the Holy Rosary- Jesus’s Nativity- is poverty.

In our culture, there are few things more vexing than having to wait. Advent is about the discipline of waiting. The good news is the efficacy of our waiting doesn’t depend on how faithful we are. Rather, it depends on the fidelity of the One on whom we wait. I think a good question to ask ourselves today is, what, or who, are you waiting for? If you are waiting for Christ, which the Scriptures say you should, then how are you to wait?

Our second reading today, from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, tells us we are to wait with joy, praying ceaselessly, and giving thanks. The Apostle tells those to whom he wrote and by extension us: “this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:18). As you likely know, Eucharist is the Greek word for giving thanks. In Mass we gather together to joyfully celebrate, to pray and give thanks. Participating in Mass is not just important to your waiting, it is vital and crucial for it. Mass is where we say, “Maranatha” – “Come Lord Jesus.”

The first part of our first reading, which is from Isaiah, is a passage that Jesus cited in St. Luke’s Gospel in the synagogue at Nazareth, which marked the beginning of his public ministry in that Gospel. After reading this passage, as he rolled up the scroll, Jesus said to the people of his hometown: “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16ff). The congregation responded by trying to kill him because he claimed to be the Messiah, the Anointed One, which, of course, he is, albeit one who did not meet human expectations.

The response of the Nazoreans present in the synagogue that day is not only that of people with no hope, but the response of people who are so deaf and blind that they are unable to see or hear hope when he is standing in front them and talking to them about hope. Let’s be honest, our hopes are so often placed in things that can never satisfy our infinite longing, be it professional or academic achievement, making money, acquiring possessions, having a big house, a nice car, going on trips and adventures, or even in human relationships. I think for children Christmas day is often an anti-climax. Like the Nazoreans who heard Jesus proclaim himself as their hope, we, too, try to throw him off a cliff when we place our hope on other things or other people.

Hope is the one-word summary of the phrase “Advent waiting.” Along with faith and love, hope is a theological virtue. Unlike natural virtues, which are acquired through habit, that is, by practicing them, the theological virtues are gifts from God. Of these, hope is probably the least understood. We often think of hope as synonymous with wishing. But hope is more about trust than it is about wishing. God is trustworthy.

We can flippantly say, “God is faithful,” because we know this is the right answer, at least when we’re in church. But you can only come to know God’s faithfulness through your own experience of waiting. God will do what he promised, just as he sent Israel not only his promised Messiah but a Lord and Redeemer who extended the covenant God made with Israel to the whole of humanity. But, as the Lord’s Nativity demonstrates, God most often fulfills his promises in very unexpected ways that are not dictated by our expectations.

“Indeed, the Lord is near.” Even now, by the power of his Spirit, Christ is near to us. We need only attend to his presence. We attend to his presence by doing nothing other than doing nothing. Deep prayer must always begin with recollection, with silence, with awe in the presence of the Lord. We don’t have to summon Christ up like a genie from a lamp, we need merely sit, breathe and just let ourselves be in the presence of the One who created us and redeemed us, the One who loves us enough not only to die for us, not only enough to rise and return for us but enough to accompany us on our way.

The truthfulness of the assertion that the quality of our waiting depends on God’s faithfulness and not on ours is borne out by the prayer St. Paul offered in the final two verses of our reading from 1 Thessalonians:
May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it (1 Thes 5:23-24)

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