December 15, 2017

Christ the Cornerstone

Rejoice always! And pray without ceasing

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“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 like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels” (Is 61:10-11).

Advent has an element of penitence to it in that it is a time for watchful waiting and preparation for the coming again of our Lord Jesus Christ. But on the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), we are reminded that we are called to “rejoice heartily in the Lord,” and to proclaim his greatness by our actions as well as our words.

Gaudete Sunday takes its name from the Latin word for “rejoice.” In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul admonishes us to “rejoice always” and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:16-17). If we take St. Paul seriously, we’ll recognize that these two instructions have a lot in common—and that both are more easily said than done.

Life is hard, filled with sorrow and bitter disappointments. How can we realistically maintain an attitude of constant rejoicing? Similarly, how can we “pray without ceasing” when our busy lives require so much of our time, effort and attention? Even cloistered monks and nuns find it challenging to pray always.

As always, when we are perplexed about the demands of Christian life, we look to Mary, the Mother of God and our mother. Her example shows us the way.

In response to the first reading this year on Gaudete Sunday, the Church invites us to pray with Mary the great canticle known as the Magnificat. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on his lowly servant” (Lk 1:46).

This was Mary’s response to the challenging news that she was to be the mother of our Lord. Intuitively, she knew that this awesome responsibility would include much sorrow and hardship. But far more importantly, Mary knew that this was the fulfillment of God’s promise—the long-awaited advent of the Messiah whom God would send to save his people (all of us) from their sins.

Mary’s immediate response—to joyfully proclaim God’s greatness—is an indication of her readiness to do whatever was necessary to carry out God’s will for her. As a result, Mary rejoiced always—even in times of great sadness—and she prayed without ceasing by making her entire life a proclamation of the Lord’s goodness. “From this day,” we pray with Mary, “all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk 1:48-49)

The Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent this year (Jn 1:6-8, 19-28) calls our attention to the other great figure of Advent, St. John the Baptist. At first glance, John hardly seems to be a model of rejoicing. He was a grim figure who lived in the desert eating locusts and honey, and he preached repentance, not rejoicing. When the priests and Levites confronted him and demanded, “What do you have to say for yourself?” (Jn 1:22) John proclaimed himself to be “not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet,” but simply “the voice of one crying in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ ” (Jn 1:20-21, 23).

Like Mary, John’s entire life was a proclamation of “the one who is coming after me.” Both John and Mary embody the Advent spirit. Both “rejoice always” because of their confidence that God’s promises are being fulfilled in their lifetimes. Both “pray without ceasing” because their minds and hearts are wholly attuned to God’s love and mercy, incarnate now in the person of Jesus—Mary’s son, John’s cousin and our brother.

St. Paul links our rejoicing to our openness to the working of the Holy Spirit. “In all circumstances give thanks,” the Apostle tells us, “for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:18). So, even in prison sentenced to death, John the Baptist rejoiced. And Mary, the sorrowing mother, stood beneath the cross and gave thanks. “Do not quench the Spirit,” St. Paul says. “Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good” (1 Thes 5:19-21).

As we come closer to the great feast of Christmas, we’re right to proclaim that our hearts are filled with joy. Yes, there is much pain and sorrow ahead. Yes, evil will assert itself, and great crimes will be committed in the name of righteousness and God’s holy will.

But our faith assures us that one is coming whom we do not recognize because our eyes are blinded by sin. That one is Jesus, our Savior, the cause of our rejoicing. Let our whole lives be a fervent prayer without ceasing: Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus! †

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