Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Rejoice in the Lord always!"


At this time of year, with each passing week, our Church seems more and more full. That got me thinking of a story I heard a while back about a pastor who wrote in his weekly bulletin, “To make it possible for everyone to attend church next Sunday, we are going to have a special No Excuse Sunday. Cots will be placed in the foyer for those who say ‘Sunday is my only day to sleep in.’ There will be a special section with lounge chairs for those who feel that our pews are uncomfortable. Eye drops will be available for those with tired eyes from watching TV late Saturday night. We will have steel helmets for those who say ‘The roof would cave in if I ever came to church.’ Blankets will be furnished for those who think the church is too cold and fans for those who say it is too hot. Scorecards will be available for those who wish to list the hypocrites present. We will distribute pins saying ‘Stamp Out the Collection Basket’ for those who feel the church is always asking for money.

“One section will be devoted to trees and grass for those who like to seek God in nature. Doctors and nurses will be in attendance for those who plan to be sick on Sunday. The sanctuary will be decorated with both Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies for those who have never seen the church without them. We will provide hearing aids for those who can’t hear the preacher and cotton balls for those who can.”

I begin with this humorous little story because today, the Third Sunday of Advent is a very different kind of celebration in the season. We celebrate Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday. The first reading at Mass today reminded us of this, “Shout for joy, sing joyfully, Be glad and exult with all your heart.” The church is a little more festive, we wear rose-colored vestments. Everything about today says rejoice! It is hard to believe that this is the third week of Advent already. Christmas is barely a week away. How quickly Jesus is coming to us. Advent begins to take on a very different character today.

We heard in our Gospel passage from Luke today, “Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.” In the passage, the people knew that the Messiah was coming, and they asked the most natural question, “What are we to do?” This is the same question that is on our minds and on our lips in Advent. We are excited at the coming of Jesus, but what are we to do? The guest is nearly here, what do we have to do to receive him?

There is a story of a certain monastery that was going through a crisis. The monks were leaving, no new candidates were joining them, and people were no longer coming for prayer and consultation as they used to do. The few monks that remained were becoming old and depressed and bitter in their relationship with one another. The abbot heard about a certain holy man, a hermit living alone in the woods and decided to consult him. He told the hermit how the monastery had dwindled and diminished and now looks like a skeleton of what it used to be. Only seven old monks remained. The hermit told the abbot that he has a secret for him. One of the monks now living in his monastery is actually the Messiah, but he is living in such a way that no one could recognize him.

With this revelation the abbot went back to his monastery, summoned a community meeting and recounted what the holy hermit told him. The aging monks looked at each other in unbelief, trying to discern who among them could be the Christ. Could it be Brother Mark who prays all the time? But he has this holier-than-thou attitude toward others. Could it be Bother Peter who is always ready to help? But he is always eating and drinking and cannot fast. The abbot reminded them that the Messiah had adopted some bad habits as a way of camouflaging his real identity. This only made them more confused and they could not make a headway figuring out who, among them, was the Christ. At the end of the meeting what each one of the monks knew for sure was that any of the monks, except himself, could indeed be the Christ.

From that day, however, the monks began to treat one another with greater respect and humility, knowing that the person they are speaking to could be the Messiah. They began to show more love for one another, their common life became more brotherly and their common prayer more fervent. Slowly people again began to take notice of the new spirit in the monastery and began coming back for retreats and spiritual direction. Word began to spread and, before you know it, candidates began to show up and the monastery began to grow again in number as the monks grew in zeal and holiness. All this because a man of God drew their attention to the truth that is so easy to overlook – that Christ was living in their midst as one of them.

After 2000 years, we have to ask ourselves, are we able to recognize Christ in the ordinary and familiar men and women in our midst with their very normal habits, backgrounds, and looks? Or has little changed? Are we still, like those in the Gospel, looking for the mighty king to come with trumpet blast, with fanfare and excitement – looking so much that we look beyond the Christ that is right in front of us every day.

Brothers and sisters, I’ve got a secret for you today – Christ is actually living in our midst but in such a way that perhaps we do not recognize him.

So, what are we to do? Given what we know about John, we anticipate a radical answer to that question like “Leave everything and join me in the desert; adopt a life of fasting and penance.” Instead, John calls people to faithfulness and care in the normal circumstances of their lives: If you have more than you need, share with those who have less; tax collectors should be honest; soldiers should not take advantage of the vulnerable; parents should cherish their children; spouses should be faithful to each other ; neighbors must live in peace. John gives us great advice for our lives and especially for this season. Share, be honest, be fair, cherish each other, be faithful and be people of peace – and open our eyes to the presence of Christ all around us.

We are being called to be the people who bring Jesus, the Light of the World into all of the places of darkness. But, first we have to let that Light be born in us. Then Jesus will use us to fashion a new world and bring forth the Kingdom of God. On our part, we must open our hearts and look with new eyes, or not look with our eyes at all, instead, we must look with our hearts, and welcome everyone we encounter – whether family or stranger, friend or foe, rich or poor – as though it were Christ Himself.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near!”

May God give you peace!

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