Saturday, December 15, 2012

How Can You Say To My Soul, "Rejoice?"

"Rejoice in the Lord always.  I shall say it again: Rejoice!"  On the Third Sunday of Advent, we are confronted with these words from St. Paul.  The words themselves do not normally appear to us as a challenge, but rather as a word of encouragement and consolation.  But, in the midst of the tremendous horrors that occurred in Newtown, CT, to rejoice would seem to require an impossible contortion of our wills.  How is it possible that the aggrieved parents of those little children could ever rejoice again?  To even suggest that they should ponder "rejoicing" itself seems cold and clueless.  And yet, these words confront us this Sunday. Are these words from St. Paul best left ignored and unmentioned?

St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Thessalonians that he does not want them "to mourn as those who have no hope."  I have always found these words instructive.  St. Paul does not say that he does not want us to mourn the dead, but rather, he wants us to mourn as those who have hope.  In fact, the Christian can mourn with greater depth because the Christian understands the truth of who we are, who made us, and for what we were made.  For the Christian, mourning does not devolve into despair.  We mourn.  And in this instance, we mourn with a depth of sorrow beyond imagining.  And yet, this depth is not an endless abyss.  For the Christian, even in the midst of this, there is reason to rejoice.  How can this possibly be so and why is it not callous to suggest such a thing?

Last night, hours after we first learned of the atrocity that occurred, about thirty parishioners of mine arrived together to offer Mass.  Among them were teachers, parents, and children.  The depth of their sorrow and anguish was written upon their faces.  Their gathering in prayer does not take away the pain and heartbreak of those in Connecticut.  And yet, by coming to Mass, these parishioners were doing precisely what John the Baptist tells us to do.  They were preparing the way of the Lord. 

By arriving at 8pm on a Friday night for Mass, they were opening their hearts to the presence of Christ.  They were making room for him.  In moments like this, we all have a desire to "do something."  The people in the Gospels who heard John preach asked him, "What should we do?"  In every instance, John basically said, "Repent."  In other words, make room in your heart for God. 

In front of this catastrophic evil, we naturally feel inclined to "do something."  We feel the need to do something.  I wonder if the "something" that would be the most fruitful is the something of repentance.  All around us, there is darkness.  But there is an answer to this darkness.  His name is Christ.  The world needs Him and His light.  What can I do?  I can remove darkness from my own heart--I can repent--and make room for Christ. 

Were it not for Christ, then the weight of human suffering and the evil that attacks us would defeat us.  Then, there would be no cause for rejoicing.  For the Christian, our cause for rejoicing is that we are not defeated.  Even in the midst of unimaginable evil and horror, God draws near.  His love is unrelenting.  His love endures forever.  The Christian can cry out in agony and in righteous anger at such events and still possess interior joy because the Christian knows that evil and darkness do not have the absolute final word.

Rejoicing is not giddiness.  It is not self-hypnosis or an attempt to anesthetize ourselves to the reality of pain and the darkness of evil.  Rejoicing, in the Christian context, is the calm confidence of knowing that we are loved by a love that has come into the world and that this love conquers sin and death. It is to know that even in the midst of the greatest darkness, a light still comes into the world.

The Communion Antiphon for the Third Sunday of Advent comes from the Prophet Isaiah: "Say to the faint of heart: Be strong and do not fear.  Behold our God will come, and he will save us."  When we open our hearts to Christ and when we repent of and remove from our hearts all that is of the world of darkness, we become witnesses to the faint of heart. 

What can I do?  I cannot explain away evil or the pain and the devastation.  I cannot provide quick answers.  But, I can repent of darkness in my own life and make room for Christ.  And when others see that darkness does not have the ultimate word on my life, they will have cause for rejoicing.  What can I do?  I can follow Christ and make room for him in my own life and thus allow his light to shine on those who walk in darkness and who dwell in the land of gloom.  I can mourn with the families of those whose lives have been stolen and I can repent and bear witness to Christ who vanquishes darkness and conquers death. 

Christian rejoicing does not eliminate mourning or sorrow.  It lives beside mourning and sorrow.  It says to those who are crushed by the agony of loss, "This is not the end."  We've sung about this thousands of times during Advent when we have pondered how Israel "mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appears."  And then, side by side with that mourning, we hear, "Rejoice, Rejoice O Israel, to Thee Shall Come Emmanuel."  What ought I to do?  I should mourn and weep, I should repent and make room for Christ, and I should rejoice that evil does not have the last word.  Our God comes to save us. I think the Lord wants me to mourn and to rejoice at the same time.  The only way for this to happen is for me truly to repent.

1 comment:

  1. God Help Us All. It's abominable to live in a society where people are mowing down kindergarten classes. I don't think that there is any accident that these incidents are becoming more prevalent the more secular society becomes. Was the guy mentally ill? Perhaps. But there is an underlying spiritual illness that permeates everything. It's truly a shame that there is a priest shortage. Never before were people like you more needed.