Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jesus Or You (JOY)

John the Baptist in Prison
(Third Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 11, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10; Matthew 11: 2-11.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Advent 2010]

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word meaning “Rejoice!” It’s the first word of the entrance antiphon for the Mass of the Third Sunday of Advent (which, unfortunately, only the people at the 7am Mass hear, because we don’t have music at the 7, and the entrance antiphon takes the place of the opening song when you don’t have music). The antiphon—which is a direct quote from Philippians 4—reads as follows: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.”

This is also the Sunday when we light the third candle of the Advent wreath—the pink one—signifying that Advent is more than half over, and that we should now be filled with joyful expectation, as the feast of our Savior’s birth fast approaches.

Of course, it’s not easy for some people to have joyful expectation in their hearts at this time of year—we all know that; perhaps because a family member or friend died recently—or because the anniversary of a friend or family member’s death occurs during this month. It may also be because they’re out of work, or because they’re experiencing a serious illness. Or it may simply be because the days are getting shorter and shorter at this time of year.

There can be 1,001 reasons for the so-called “holiday blues,” but one thing’s for certain: they’re real, and they affect many of us—perhaps most of us—at one point or another during the month of December.

Well, today let me share with you an insight that will hopefully help you to experience at least a measure of joy during this sacred season, regardless of what you’re dealing with in your life right now.

The insight comes in the form of an acronym. This acronym can serve as a reminder of where our focus needs to be during this time of year—because I believe the joy of this season depends on us having the right focus, the right center.

The acronym, appropriately enough, is the word “JOY” which in this case stands for Jesus-Or-You.

Who is at the center of this season for you? Is it Jesus or is it you? Where are you seeking your joy in this holy season? Is it in Jesus, or is it in yourself?

The tendency we have at this time of year, as fallen human beings, is the tendency to try to find our joy in ourselves and in our circumstances—which works out okay when everything is going smoothly in our lives; however, when things turn sour and get difficult (as they always eventually do), there’s nothing left to hang onto. We’ve made the mistake of trying to find lasting joy in things that do not last, and what we’re left with in the end is emptiness.

That’s what happens when you try to find your joy in you.

But Jesus never changes! As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus Christ is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” He was our Savior; he is our Savior; he will always be our Savior. He loved us unconditionally in the past; he loves us unconditionally in the present, and he will love us unconditionally in the future. He always forgave us in the past when we sincerely and properly repented; he forgives us in the present when we repent, and he will forgive us in the future if we repent.

When we focus on Jesus we focus on things that are unchangeable. So it is possible for me to be joyful in my faith and in my relationship with Jesus and in the hope he gives me of eternal life—even when my circumstances are not so good.

Focusing my mind and heart on Jesus gives me something—or rather, Someone—to hang onto always: Someone who will make my joys more joyful and my sorrows more bearable.

John the Baptist, I think, would attest to this, based on his experience in today’s gospel. Here we have John in prison for telling King Herod the truth about his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife. And while he was there he began to wonder whether or not his cousin Jesus really was the Messiah. I think that’s because John, like most Jews of the time, expected the Messiah to be more forceful and heavy-handed than Jesus was.

So he began to wonder whether or not he had heard God correctly in the first place and whether or not he had fulfilled his personal mission in this life properly—both of which had to be very depressing thoughts!

So he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him the big question: “Are you the one?—are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

Jesus replied, by saying, in effect, “Go back and remind my cousin that I’m doing all those incredible things that Isaiah the prophet said many years ago that the Messiah would do [in passages like the one we heard today in our first reading]—I’m healing the blind, the sick, the lame, lepers. I’m raising the dead, and I’m preaching the good news to the poor. Blessed—happy—joyful—is the one who takes no offence at me.”

John the Baptist never left that prison cell—until the day he was beheaded by King Herod and carried out. The terrible circumstances he was living in never changed for the better.

But I believe John was different! Once he heard Jesus’ message from the mouths of his disciples, John the Baptist was, I believe, a different man. He rejoiced! He now knew that his Savior had come; he now knew that his Savior was in the process of saving him, and THAT became the source of his joy.

And so he died, in those terrible circumstances—in that horrible prison— a happy man.

Where have you been trying to find your Advent joy so far? Where will you try to find it in the next few weeks? Will it be in Jesus? Or will it be in yourself?

Remember, when it comes to joy in this holy season—and in every other season of the year, for that matter!—it’s either Jesus Or You.

St. John the Baptist, pray for us. Pray that we will follow your example and find our true and lasting joy in the very same place you found it—in Jesus. Amen.