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Father Mitch Pacwa’s homily for Gaudete Sunday

December 13, 2020

In the Latin rite this is one of the two days in the Church’s year where we wear the rose colored vestments. And this Sunday is known as Guaudete Sunday. More than half of Advent is over, so there is rejoicing because Christmas is getting closer. And I always look forward to that because it meant that a lot of good food was coming and Advent would soon be over. But there is another depth of rejoicing that we ought to have instead of just litkid’s desire to have candy and chocolate.

This name Guaudete Sunday comes from Thessalonians, “rejoice always.” And it’s a call for us, this Sunday and in all circumstances, to rejoice always. It’s not easy. And St. Paul did not say it in a circumstance of what was easy for him. He was not saying, well, I have a great house now, I’m in a palace, and I have lot of servants and everything is wonderful. No. No. Remember the situation in which he is. He writes this in 51 or 52 AD. He had been told by the Lord when he was in Asia minor, near the ancient city of Troy–in the New Testament it is called Troas–but it was the ancient city of Troy, it was nearby. But that is where he was told in the dream to go to Europe, and begin evangelizing there.

So he goes, he gets arrested, beaten with rods, stoned, rejected, he is on the lam. When he goes to another town, people from the earlier town follow him to help the new people drive him out. He goes to Athens. Nobody beats him there, but they do not listen either. He gives one of his famous sermons at the Areopagus, but they do not listen, they think he is some magpie. And now he is in the city of Corinth where new trouble is about to begin brewing.

And I mention all of this to remind us, St. Paul does not say rejoice when you have the good times; he does not say that, but, rejoice always. And that includes what was for him a lot of very difficult times. He knew that even with difficulties and persecution and being constantly on the move because people want to kill him, he knew the poverty. As a matter of fact, in Corinth he had to work with a couple of other Jewish people who were tentmakers like himself, and he was supporting himself by making tents; something that was very important for the Roman army. So he is doing what he can, but he rejoices in the midst of his difficulties. He rejoices, not despite his difficulties, but he rejoices for them. This is not a common lesson anymore.

All too often we want to make sure that things are going well then we will rejoice. And if not, we think that it is really better for us to start complaining to God and telling him that it should be different. “You should really run the world a lot better than what you are doing.” And even the great St. Teresa of Avila, on her way to go and talk with one of the bishops about establishing a new convent, and dealing with some problems, so she cleaned and pressed her habit, and was in a cart, and it crossed the river and hit a big rock and knocked her into the water, so she is all full of mud. She looked up and to God and said, “if this is the way you treat your friends it is no wonder you have so few!” And that is our attitude of a lot of us at times. And St. Paul tells us otherwise. Rejoice, in all circumstances, give thanks–in all circumstances, he says, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

And what is important about that is, admittedly, everybody seems to be talking about what a difficult painful, sometimes miserable year, 2020 has been. And we are getting close to the end of it. I do not think the difficulties will follow the calendar and end December 31. It won’t end when we get to January 1, and we say, it’s 2021 and now things are better. There are more difficulties to come to be sure. But we are called to give thanks to God in all circumstances. That does not mean that the circumstances are not very difficult. Many people have lost friends and relatives because of the Covid virus. Many people have lost their businesses because of the Covid virus and the shutdowns. Other people have lost their businesses because of rioting and looting earlier in the year. And the threat of still more. It is been a hard year. Other people lost everything in this series of hurricanes that hit along the Gulf Coast, in particular, especially in Louisiana; a lot of difficulties. And in all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

I remember reading many years ago a little book called ‘Prison to Praise.’ by a Methodist minister, Reverend Carruthers–a short book. He wrote a lot of other books but basically they all said the same as the first one, so that is enough to read. But he learned from when he was orphaned, he was in the military, and that was as much family as he had, being in the military. He was in jail through his own fault. And in all of that there was somebody that he met in jail that told him to praise God for all these things and thank God. That you are alone. That you have no family. That you are in jail. He just thought it was nuts. He thought this was; he was not much of a practitioner of any faith at that point, but somehow or other, he found a way to praise God. And he thanked God for this mess that he had caused–it truly was a mess that he was in–a court martial–all sorts of things. It ends up, one of the jailers was his natural sister that he had never met. And she introduced him to the mother that gave birth to him. This was back, I think in the early 1950’s. They did not have DNA and stuff like that. But they figured it out that this was his mother. He found a whole family. And a lot of other things happened well for him. And he said, had I not started that process of praising God, and beginning to feel joyful–the actual action of being joyful in the midst of his difficulties somehow it changed him, and that is what got the conversation started with the jailer by which he found out that was his sister. And on and on it went. It so changed his life, he ended up becoming a minister.

I think for us to learn a lesson from it. He had a great image. It appealed to me, the son of a used car salesman and mechanic. He said, when things are going badly and we are complaining about everything, about how bad it is, how terrible it is, we’re like a parked car. And when a car is parked you can turn the wheel–they did not have the wheel locks in those days, but you had the wheel lock unlocked–you could turn the wheel, but it is hard, isn’t it? You have to really struggle especially before power steering; the old days. And this is how it is for God trying to direct our lives when we focus on our complaints; He can turn the wheel of our lives, He can redirect us, but it is difficult because we are the ones who are giving a resistance to his influence by our complaints. We’re like the tire that gravity and friction are fighting against us, when it is we who are causing the friction. We are the ones causing the resistance by our complaints. But then he said, when a car is in motion, then, with the flip of a wrist, you can turn it; it turns very easily. When we are praising God, we are in motion in our relationship with him. We are moving forward. And then we allow God to redirect us more easily by the fact that we praise him–even for our difficulties. And he added one other good insight. He came to realize, I am just so joyful that God became flesh and died on the cross for my salvation, and he caught himself. He said, I am happy that the one completely innocent man was condemned to death and tortured unjustly. And he the one who was innocent man who is condemned and tortured and killed unjustly, but it is God made flesh, and if I can rejoice at that, why can I not rejoice in the midst of my own difficulty, my own trials, my own pain, in order to allow God then to redirect me more easily?

So we celebrate this great feast Guaudete Sunday which means in Latin “rejoice.” because St. Paul’s words are also of course in Greek but it is you plural rejoice; all of us rejoice. This is why this feast is so crucial for us to understand and celebrate. But then we also need to see the other readings that we have been given; these other passages for us to reflect on.

The one in Isaiah 61, itself, continues the theme in many ways. Notice how he says at in the beginning, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted and to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to the prisoners, to announce your favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.

This prophet Isaiah is from the period after the Jewish people had returned from Babylon. Remember the history. We see if you look in 1st part of this section, Chapter 56 of Isaiah, that the temple is already built. So we get an idea of the dating. They started to rebuild the temple when Cyrus the Persian let them go free from Babylon. That was in January of 538 BC. And they came home, and they started building the temple, but they became distracted. They said, wait, we have to build our own houses first, so they stopped working on rebuilding the temple. They started working on their own houses until, in 520–so a good 16 or 17 years after they started rebuilding the temple and left it unfinished–the prophets Haggai and Zachariah arose in the year 520, and said, “you are working for nothing. You’re building your houses. Your grain is not going to work. Your oil is going to fail. Because you are not rebuilding the temple.” And both Haggai and Zachariah urged them to get back to that work and finish it, which they did, in 516 BC. Why? Because they needed to have God back at the center.

Get a picture of Jerusalem in terms of difficulty and misery. The city of Jerusalem had been burned to the ground. All of it was destroyed. The walls had all been knocked down. The Babylonians made the people of Jerusalem destroy their own city, and then go off into exile. So when they came, picture a place that has knocked down stones, clay, bricks that would be crumbling and melting back into the ground, burnt wood and the smell of what had been burned throughout the whole city. All of that had been there and they started to rebuild. They neglected the temple. The prophets Haggai and Zachariah said, rebuild the temple because it’s only when the Lord is at the center of your identity–at the center of your activity–that you can succeed. Your success will be something that is going to dissipate without God at your center, so you need him as the one that holds you together. And this is truly the case.

When any people from our faith begins to neglect the centrality of God, Our Lord, they dissipate their own identity and fade away. That’s what happened to the ten so-called ‘Lost Tribes of Israel’; the northern tribes. They mixed their worship with the worship of the pagan gods, and they lost their identity, and no longer focused on the Lord, and they dissipated. The reason that the tribe of Judah–where we get the name Jews–the reason that the tribe of Judah survived is that they said, wait a minute, this was God’s punishment. They listened to the prophet Isaiah, and they came back. And then, when they finally listened to Haggai and Zachariah, they rebuilt the temple and they found their identity in the Lord. It is only when they as a community maintained their worship of God that they maintained their identity as a people.

And we see the same thing among various Christians, including Catholics–Catholics who no longer practice their faith, who no longer come to church. “Well, I do not need to go to church to worship.” I guarantee you, when they start thinking that, their identity as Catholics dissipates and fades away. And then they do not worry about what God’s demands of righteousness are. They pick and choose which ones. As I said on Wednesday, they become one of the three categories of C’s: Cradle Catholics, Converts and finally, the Cafeteria Catholics. But they have no identity in Christ.

And we see that this section of Isaiah Chapter 56, describes how the temple is rebuilt, so we know that this comes from after 516 (And this is when in fact right outside here at EWTN, we quote Isaiah 56, where it says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”) They begin to realize, as they have their identity, then they can open from that identity in Christ in order to allow the nations to come and find a new identity in God. They allow themselves to be a place where other nations come for worship and they become that blessing for all the nations.

But, there were still a set of problems. And that set of problems is that, after they had rebuilt, it seems things are going well, but a number of the people in the community, especially the very wealthy, begin to oppress and enslave the poor. Forcing them to work even on the Sabbath. And you see that description of the oppression that began to arise in Chapter 58 and 59. So in the midst of that, does God abandon them? No. Because they had sought their identity in God, it means that he has not abandoned them, but rather the Spirit of the Lord God is upon me. This prophet, and the sense of this community that has his identity in Christ; this prophet receives the Spirit of God and he does so in the Jubilee Year. That is why it is a year of favor from the Lord. And this year of favor refers to the Jubilee when the people of Israel set their slaves free. Ease up on the debts, let the debts pass, and let everybody start over.

The Jubilee was every 50 years. In the time of the before Christ it was in the 73rd and the 23rd year. And in fact the very year that Christ begins his public ministry was a Jubilee Year. That’s why he cites this same passage when he begins his preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth. It is a Jubilee Year when he begins his ministry. And John is the precursor who announces that this guy’s coming. It was right before the Jubilee began and the ministry of Jesus starts. So, this prophet receives the Spirit of the Lord in the midst of another set of difficulties. But in the set of those difficulties, he knows that the Lord has called him, also not to just let them stay difficult, but to go out and to proclaim liberty for the captives, good news for the poor. And he calls people away from staying in that difficulty–in that problematic situation, in order to go forward and do what is right, so that, as he says here, that they that they are going to be like a garden and the people will be like a garden–but it is not plants; it is going to be justice and praise that spring up. That he summons them to take look at the situation that exists and call forth justice and praise. That we have to follow the law of God and act justly toward one another, and we praise God in the midst of all of these situations. And this also is a call for us as we are dealing with a difficult time, and threats of persecution and harassment.

Many states are dealing with where you cannot come to church–in some of these states. That is why one church–did you see this on the news? In one church, the pastor had to do a little striptease; he took off his tie and opened his top button, because in his state they allowed strip joints to stay open along with marijuana stores and liquor stores–they could stay open–but churches could not. So he took off his tie, called it a strip club, and then preached the Gospel after that. That’s clever, but we have to help to correct the injustices among those politicians who seem to follow Karl Marx’s idea that religion is the opiate of the people, so they think that it is unnecessary to worship God; that it’s unnecessary to be together to praise him. When you see that they keep open the marijuana stores and legalize more drugs, then you also come to realize, aha! They have changed Karl Marx’s doctrine. Marx said religion is the opiate of the people. These politicians want opiates to be the opiate of the people. That is okay for them, but the worship of God is not.

So we have to work plenty. We have plenty of issues to come up with. We are to do as the Holy Spirit guides us to correct or prevent worse oppression, especially for the unborn, and the aged, and the poor; all of these issues. We rejoice in the Lord always and we let him stir us to the action to bring about justice and praise of God. Not just justice and not just praise, but both. These are the focus of our faith. This is what Our Lord stirs us to do as well.