Sunday Sermon for December 17, 2017, the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
Readings: Is 61:1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thes 5:16-24; Jn 1:6-8, 19-28
In the second reading today St. Paul presents us with a huge challenge: rejoice always. He follows this up by telling to us pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances because this is the will of God for us. We can understand the need to pray without ceasing, although very few of us actually do this, but to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances seems to us ridiculous at best and, at worst, impossible.
Why do we see it this way? Because in some of the circumstances we find ourselves, rejoicing and giving thanks do not seem appropriate. What this demonstrates is not a failure of St. Paul to take such circumstances into account; rather, it demonstrates our own narrowness of vision. We find ourselves unable to see any reason for gratitude or rejoicing in some situations, but that does not mean there is no reason for rejoicing or being grateful. What we have to do is to learn to see things from God’s perspective in order to recognize the good in our particular circumstances.
We have to recall that St. Paul learned this lesson only through a series of very painful and difficult events. He is speaking from experience when he exhorts us to be joyful and grateful. The reason he was able to do this, on the natural level, is that he was able to see the good God brought out of bad, painful, difficult, unjust, or problematic occurrences in his life.
Like us, he also had the help of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace. This is what we hear in the first reading where it states “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me” and “I rejoice heartily in the Lord…because He has clothed me with a robe of salvation.” We know God brings good out of evil and, as St. Paul also instructs us: all things work together for good for those who believe.
It might be instructive for us to think about the lives of the Saints. We read about the various trials through which they suffered. Their authors usually show us some aspect of the Saint’s personality that needed adjustment or some situation the Saint was in that required resolution. Knowing that information and then reading about how God accomplished what was necessary, we can understand why God allowed these trials. We sit back and marvel, both at how God works and how the Saint cooperated with God’s grace to emerge victorious from the trial.
When we have the privilege of knowledge as well as an objective perspective, it makes things much easier for us to understand. Knowing more about what God was trying to accomplish, we can only marvel at the creative manner in which God achieves His purpose. However, when it comes to our own self, we often lack knowledge of what God is attempting to do for us and we certainly lack the objectivity that would allow us to see things more clearly. We simply have to learn to trust that somehow, in a way we are not able to see, this is going to be the best for us – and for others.
We look at the testimony of St. John the Baptist in the Gospel reading today, and we see that his hidden life of suffering and deprivation prepared him for the work God had created him to do. It required thirty years of preparation for him to perform a work that lasted only a few months. However, it prepared him to know who he was, to know Jesus when he saw Him, and to give ultimate witness to our Lord through martyrdom.
That might sound like a wasted life to us, but Jesus said St. John was the greatest man born of woman. For someone who only preached for a few months, his voice continues to resound through the centuries to our own day. Could the Baptist have known that he would still be preaching in 2017? God knew it and prepared His Saint so the hearts of people would continue to make a place for the Lord. His example continues to inspire people today. His life was anything but a waste.
I think we can assume with great certitude that St. John the Baptist lived a life of rejoicing and gratitude. We know for a fact that his life was one of prayer and penance, but such a life normally results in a person marked by peace, charity, joy, and gratitude. If this describes a man who lived alone in austere conditions and also a man who suffered hardship and many trials as St. Paul did, then joy and gratitude should come easy for us. When we recognize God working in our lives, then we too will rejoice always.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.