The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Homily: 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C

Readings: Zep 3:14-18a; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18

Newtown, Connecticut – Years ago some dear friends of ours lived in Newtown and we visited them on a number of occasions. In fact, as a youngster I lived only 15 miles away in the much smaller town of Nichols, Connecticut.

I remember Newtown as a lovely town, quiet and quaint, one of those typical New England towns of the kind pictured in calendars, a nostalgic sort of place where people long to settle with their families.

On Friday that quiet town and many of its families were shattered by the actions of a single person – horrific actions, evil, irrational – and quite likely we’ll never fully understand the motivations involved. These unanswered questions will only add to the grief of those families.

Yet here we are in this holy season of Advent, looking forward to Christmas, the celebration of our Savior’s coming into the world. For Christmas is a joyous event. Indeed, today is Gaudete Sunday, the joyful Sunday of Advent. As a sign of that joy, we light the rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath. Our readings instruct us not only to experience the joy of expectation in Christ’s coming but also to express our joy openly. We’re repeatedly called on to shout for joy, to sing joyfully, to cry out with gladness, to exult with all our hearts, not to be discouraged, to have no anxiety and to fear nothing.

And yet, as we think of and pray for those families who mourn and grieve for their children today, it just doesn’t seem to fit together, does it?

Holy Innocents - Sagrada Familia - Barcelona
When I first became aware of the extent of that tragedy, my thoughts turned to a similar tragedy that occurred in another sleepy little town 2,000 years ago. The town was Bethlehem, where God had told the prophet Micah the Messiah, the ruler of Israel, would be born. Thinking he could actually thwart God’s plans, King Herod sent his soldiers into Bethlehem to kill all its young boys two years old and under. Yes, that first and most joyous Christmas was also marred by tragedy.

As we studied Matthew’s Gospel in a freshman theology class, someone asked our professor, “How many children do you think Herod killed?” I remember the good Jesuit saying, “Well, Bethlehem was a pretty small town – probably only about 20.”

About 20…the Holy Innocents we call them – infants and toddlers, unknowingly martyred, canonized by their baptism of blood. How the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem must have mourned.

About 20…today 2,000 years later we mourn the loss of another 20 innocents, a loss that will change how we will celebrate Christmas. We will hug our children and grandchildren a little tighter this year, and we will pray in thanksgiving for keeping them safe.

Of course, as Christians we’re called to see these events through the eyes of faith; and in faith we know that this life is not all there is, that our true home is elsewhere. And so we accept that these young innocents, who had tasted only a sample of this life, are now in God’s loving, eternal embrace.

Did you hear what Paul told us in our second reading? “Rejoice in the Lord always. I say again, rejoice!” [Phil 4:4]

Rejoice always? Truly remarkable words. And they’re remarkable because Paul didn’t write these words to the Philippians from some hotel room in Ephesus, from a condo in Corinth, or from a retirement community in the Greek isles. No, Paul wrote them from a Roman prison, where his life was in imminent danger.

Rejoice always! That’s hard to do sometimes, for certain times just don’t seem to call for rejoicing. And yet, in the early church our mothers and fathers in faith went to their deaths rejoicing. They literally did “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

And Christians are still doing it today. I recall reading about a Romanian Baptist preacher named Josef Tson. Back in the 1970s he was continually persecuted and imprisoned by the communists in his country…simply for preaching the gospel. It’s still happening today, in China, Viet Nam, Cuba, in many parts of the Islamic world…Christians are imprisoned or martyred simply for preaching the gospel.

After one of his many arrests Tson felt certain he would be killed. Resigned to his fate, he told one of his interrogators, “You should know your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying,”

You see, brothers and sisters, that’s how St. Paul can say, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him…” [Rom 8:28] In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, the good is not readily apparent…but we must give God time to work, because He works through us, through you and me.

You and I can’t address the causes of what happened, because we don’t know what’s in the heart of another human being. We leave that to God. Instead we can do only what John the Baptist told the crowds to do in today’s gospel passage as he preached the Good News throughout Judea.

“What should we do?” they all asked him [Lk 3:10].

Give to the poor, he told them…and give from your own need, not just from your surplus. Be honest, loving, caring people.

This was the message that John was sent to give to the world. He was educating the souls of men and women, preparing them to receive what Christ would tell them.

And the result? Paul supplied the answer: “Your kindness should be known to all…Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phil 4:5,7]

And perhaps the best place to first express our kindness is in our own homes, to those who love us most, those to whom we can sometimes be most unkind indeed.

Yes, John and Paul, two men who died martyrs’ deaths in prison, both discovered that the joy of God’s presence overcame all fears, removed all anxiety, turned every kind of suffering into a reason to rejoice and give thanks. It was their work to awaken those who were totally unconcerned with the things of God, to pull them out of their complacency, to wake them up with the Good News.

It’s no different today. To shake the world out of its indifference we need prophets like John and Paul, men and women who are true witnesses to God’s love for the world. Today, brothers and sisters, we need people of joy, not just on one Sunday of Advent, but every day. We need you, because God has sent each of you to do just that.

Pray for the souls of the children and teachers who died.

Pray for peace in the hearts of those who love them.

Now the hard part…As Christians we must pray too for the soul of the confused and troubled young man responsible for this massacre of innocents. We must pray for him because the families of most of his victims will be unable to take that step, probably for years to come. Forgiveness cannot easily enter a heart that is understandably filled with grief and anger. We must extend forgiveness for them who are as yet unable to do so.

And bless your children and grandchildren each day, for blessings are spiritually powerful acts, especially when extended by a parent. As fathers and mothers, as grandfathers and grandmothers, reach out and touch their precious heads with your hands and extend God's blessing in the name of Jesus Christ. Send them into the world each day cloaked with God's love and your love.

Let them know you love them deeply and ask the Father to protect them, for as Jesus told us, "See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father" [Mt 18:10].

God’s peace…

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