3rd Sunday of Advent 2014
I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice (Isaiah 61:10)
Why does the Christian heart rejoice so greatly at the coming of Christ, His first coming and His coming at the end of time? Surely it is because his first coming has made it possible for us to be given the “robe of salvation” and to have our souls wrapped in the “mantle of justice.” Christians know by faith that they have been truly recreated by Baptism which draws all its power from the God made flesh Who died and rose for us men and for our salvation. We have been remade truly just, justified, and remade holy, sanctified by His grace. And we joyfully look forward to His coming at the end of time to raise our mortal bodies and establish us whole, body and soul, in the glory of His Father’s Kingdom.
That is the cause of our joy as we approach the celebration of that first coming at Christmas which carries with it the promise of His second coming. If God has become flesh for our salvation, there can be no doubt that He will one day complete his saving work in those who put their faith in Him. It was this good news that Isaiah first and John last proclaimed, that God is coming into the world and we must prepare the way of the Lord into our world, into our souls.
Paul tells us how to prepare, as does John. Paul says “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks.” Rejoice, pray, give thanks, those are the elements of spiritual preparation for those who have already accepted the Lord. But John’s message is prior to His coming and in a real sense prior to the spiritual teaching of Paul in this passage. His message is the same as the first message of Jesus in his public preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt. 3:1) To make “straight the way of the Lord” requires first of all repentance for sin, and that leads to the radical transformation of Baptism. Only then can the new man truly rejoice, pray and give thanks always. Without repentance there is no joy of salvation.
That truth presents a very serious problem for men in our own age. In today’s culture, there is little authentic joy, at least in the spiritual sense of Paul, because there is little or no genuine repentance for sin, as called for by John and by Jesus Himself. John’s gospel says that John the Baptist came in the world to testify to “the light,” for he was not the light himself, but rather Jesus is the true light that enlightens every man. Now light is necessary for repentance since the light that John is talking about is the light of truth. Unless one accepts that there is such a thing as objective truth, which applies also to the moral order, then one cannot really repent in the strict sense, for repentance is based upon a recognition that one’s conduct is evil because it contradicts the objective truth of God’s moral law.
Where there is no acceptance of an objectively true moral order established by a lawgiver who is not only outside of our self but outside of the human world, the notion of sin becomes problematic, purely subjective. Since modern man makes up his own moral law, to whom would he be repenting except himself? It makes no sense. So repentance is a rare thing in our world because so many people in our culture have become wildly subjective and relative when it comes to their morality. When man becomes his own judge, the verdict applied to his or her conduct is bound to be “innocent.” So where objective truth, John’s notion of light, disappears in the moral order, repentance disappears along with it, and where repentance disappears, the joy of salvation is no longer experienced. What is man saved from where there is no sin?
Christians, on the other hand, come to know this great spiritual joy either at their baptism, if they are converted as adults, or at their first confession, at least when the confession involves what is judged by the penitent himself to be a serious sin which contradicts the law of God. What joy fills the heart even of a young penitent who comes forth from the confession believing that God has truly forgiven him by this sacrament and has accepted him back into communion with Himself. What joy you must have filled the heart of the good thief on Calvary, the heart of Peter who is forgiven his betrayal by the Lord, the heart of Mary Magdalene was forgiven and became a member of his extended family. This seemed joy fills the heart of every repentance center who knows the mercy of God firsthand in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
Once one is reconciled with God, then the path of preparation for the second coming of Christ is clear; prayer, thanksgiving and rejoicing for all of God’s good gifts. The need for repentance, however, is never left behind because none of us are perfect in this world. But even our repentance will have the characteristic mark of joy that must permeate the Christian life. Even the tears of repentance are transformed by grace into tears of joy. The Christian life always remains a life of struggle, but it’s a struggle that does not exclude joy, since faith, hope and charity are the very basis of that struggle and the guarantee of its success, if we but remain faithful to the Lord.
All of this seems like wishful thinking and myth, even madness to the unbelieving world. But it is the unbelieving world that is mad when it rejects “the light,” the light that came into the world to save it from itself. It is the unbelieving world that is involved in myth making when it tries to exult man by denying God. What is true madness, to believe that God so loved the world that he became flesh or to believe that man can be his own god?
Christmas reminds us of many truths about our humanity, how valuable God considers us, how greatly God loves us, but above all perhaps, in our age, how absurd to think that man can raise himself from the dead and create a paradise on earth. Such madness always ends in tragedy, the tragedy that Christ came to enable man to avoid. Salvation, joy and peace are always possible for all men, if they will only come to believe, precisely because He has truly come and will come again, and because, as Paul concludes, “The one who calls you is faithful, and He will also accomplish it.”