Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rejoice! The Lord is Near!

Third Sunday of Advent Year B

Have you ever seen an apocalyptic “end-of-the-world” movie that was a cause for celebration? I guess not. Unfortunately, when we think of the end of the world it is often with anything but joyful hearts. The thought of going out with a cataclysmic bang is hardly something to shout about and applaud. From the Mayans to the prophecies of the Irish bishop St Malachy or Nicodemus to modern doomsday preachers, there’s a long list of people who predicted the end of the age. It’s not the triumphant return of Christ in glory which becomes the focus of such prophecies. Rather, we hear about a time of tribulation, war, earthquakes, death and destruction. Catholics, on the other hand, see something altogether different when they envision the end of time.  We see it as the return of Jesus Christ in glory, a time of judgment, yes, but also a time of liberation. We rejoice! Not only do we rejoice when thinking about it, we pray for the coming of that day!

So do we believe in the End Times? Of course we do! For Catholics, the terms “end times” and “last days” refer both to the conclusion of history at some future point, and also—even primarily—to the last two thousand years. It is here that what I’m about to say may come as a big surprise even to Catholics. Yes, we are living in the End Times. The death and resurrection of Christ is the first and decisive act of the End Times. But now we wait for God’s work of salvation to be completed when Christ returns in glory. That is why our Advent celebrations help us to focus on these two comings, the first Coming of Christ at Christmas and His Second Coming at the very end. So, yes, we are living in the end times, they’ve always been the end times, and they’re always going to be the end times. Notice that in every age, there are tribulations, both natural and manmade. And yes, in every age, there will be the forces of Anti-Christ, the ideologies, structures, governments, individuals and corporations who would deny the Kingship and salvific role of Christ. Given the ambivalence of these signs, it would appear that we are continually in the End Times.

But our Christian expectation the End Times is marked by joy and hope because of the object of our contemplation. “By gazing on the risen Christ,” wrote Pope Emeritus Benedict, when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Christianity knew that a most significant coming had already taken place. It no longer proclaimed a pure theology of hope, living from mere expectation of the future, but pointed to a ‘now’ in which the promise had already become present. Such a present was, of course, itself hope, for it bears the future within itself.” “In Christ,” Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe Salvi, his 2007 encyclical on Christian hope, “God has revealed himself. He has already communicated to us the ‘substance' of things to come, and thus the expectation of God acquires a new certainty.” Attempting to describe that substance of things to come, the pope writes: “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love... life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”  

Therefore, we Christians anticipate the End Times not with fear and trembling but with rejoicing. St Paul reminds us in the second reading, “Be happy at all times, pray constantly, and for all things give thanks.” Like the prophet Isaiah in the first reading, the thought of the “end times,” of Christ’s coming, should be met with euphoria, “I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God!” The prophet announces that the coming of the Lord’s messenger will mean healing and liberation to all who are poor, brokenhearted, imprisoned, and captive. This “year of the Lord’s favour” applies to all of us, for all of us are imprisoned by ourselves and captivated by ourselves; far from being uninjured, all of us are so fractured and poverty-stricken that we cannot heal ourselves. The Spirit of God continues to bring healing and liberation and works from within us, just as an organism heals from the inside out. But our duty is not just merely to wait passively. We must actively ensure that the Spirit has opportunity to work in us; we must be guided by Him in discerning good from evil.

Such attitude of hopeful and joyful expectation therefore brings about a livid consciousness that we are witnesses of God’s light while steadfastly denying that we ourselves are the light. Just like St John the Baptist, the closer one comes to God for the purpose of testifying of him, the more clearly one sees the distance between God and creature. The more one vacates space within himself for God, the more he becomes a simple instrument of God, a mere voice that cries in the wilderness, “Make a straight way for the Lord.”

Sometimes we have an image of John the Baptist as an austere ascetic. In depicting the Baptist in this fashion, we tend to forget the joy that is associated with his entire life and vocation. It was him who leapt for joy in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when she encountered the Mother of the Word Incarnate. In the fourth Gospel, St John speaks of the source of the Baptist’s supernatural joy - it is the joy of the best man, who rejoices greatly at hearing the bridegroom’s voice. And thus his humility opened a space within him for true joy, the kind which comes from the real presence of the Lord. So it can be for each one of us. Thus, John stands as a sign for us today on Gaudete Sunday. He points out for each one of us the path to lasting joy; a lifestyle of self emptying – a life marked by humility – we prepare for the coming of the Lord by always holding on this basic principle that defined the Baptist’s life and mission, “He must increase and I must decrease.”  We can know no lasting peace and joy, unless we come to know Christ. Such a way of life leads to continual conversion and transformation as we respond to the gift of grace.
So, this Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, becomes another opportunity to be joyful
, indeed it is a joy that is greater than it was. In just a matter of days we will celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord. But we do not just commemorate the past. The Liturgy anticipates the future, the coming of our Saviour, our Liberator, the Christ who will bring to completion the good work he has begun in us. The Church as mother and teacher thus proclaims at the beginning of today’s liturgy, using the imperative case - Rejoice! Notice - It is a command! In Latin, Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete : Dominus prope est. In English, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near!”

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