Sunday, December 17, 2017

Three of the Best Choices You Can Possibly Make in this Life

(Third Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 17, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 61: 1-11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; Luke 1: 46-55.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Advent 2017]

This morning I’ll share with you three of the best choices you can possibly make in this life—courtesy of St. Paul.  They’re found in the first line of today’s second reading from 1 Thessalonians 5, where Paul says: “Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  In all circumstances, give thanks.”

Rejoice—pray—give thanks.

And just to drive home the idea that these three choices—these three decisions—are extremely important for us to make, Paul adds the line, “For this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus”.

That’s a pretty bold statement, is it not?

To say that you know the will of God for another human person (or for a given group of people) is a very “gutsy” thing to do.  You had better know what you’re talking about!

Which, of course, St. Paul did.  He knew exactly what he was talking about!  He knew that Almighty God wants each of us to live a meaningful, holy, happy life (to the extent that happiness is possible here on this earth)—but St. Paul also knew that living that kind of life was impossible without rejoicing, prayer and gratitude.

So let’s look at each of them briefly, so we understand what Paul is telling us in this text—and what Paul is not telling us.  He begins by saying, “Rejoice always”.  Not sometimes; not every once in a while; not just on sunny days in June or July—but ALWAYS!

Here we see the difference between “feeling joy” and “rejoicing”.  Feeling joy is something emotional.  Specifically, it’s an emotional response to something that pleases us.  Children, for example, will see their presents under the tree on Christmas morning and they will feel joy.  That will happen quite naturally.  And if they’ve been particularly good during the previous 12 months, they will feel a lot of joy!

Rejoicing is different—very different.  Biblically speaking, rejoicing is not an emotion or an emotional response to something that we find attractive or pleasing.  Rejoicing in the Bible is an act of the will.  It’s a choice.  It’s a decision.  It’s a choice and decision to praise and glorify God regardless of what we happen to be dealing with at the present time in our life.

And it’s a decision which is made on the basis of things that we know to be true.

I don’t always “feel joy.”  Neither, I suspect, do you, and neither does anybody else.  But even when I’m not feeling joy I can still make the conscious and deliberate decision to rejoice, based on what I know, by faith, to be true.

I know by faith, for example, that God created me in his image and likeness.  I know that he loves me perfectly, completely and unconditionally.  I know he sent his Son into this world 2,000 years ago to save me from my sins and to give me a kingdom that will last forever.  I know that he will never abandon me, and will always provide for my needs.  I know he will always forgive me no matter how many times or how badly I sin, if I go to him in true repentance—especially in the confessional.

Those are some of the foundational truths of our Catholic faith.  They were true yesterday; they’re true today; they will always be true. 

They’re true when we’re feeling joy, and they’re true when we’re not feeling joy. So we can always rejoice in them, because they are unchanging!  They’re timeless!  My health may change, my family may change, my friends may change, my job situation may change—but the truth of who God is and what he has done for me will never, ever change.

Notice what Isaiah says in today’s first reading.  He says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord.”  Not in the things of this world; not in the good circumstances that I happen to be experiencing in my life right now, but “in the Lord.”  Mary says the same thing in today’s responsorial psalm (which really isn’t a psalm; it’s part of her Magnificat).  Mary says there, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

So you want to know why so many people find it difficult to rejoice at this time of year?

It’s because they’re attempting to rejoice in something or in someone other than God!  They’re attempting to rejoice in the people and the things and the changing circumstances of this world!

Mary and Isaiah—and St. Paul—knew better than to try to do that.

Now hopefully we do as well.

After he tells us to rejoice always, Paul then tells us to make the choice to “pray without ceasing.”

What is that all about?  Is St. Paul telling us that we should be saying “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” at every moment of every day?

No, he isn’t.  He didn’t do that himself!

Prayer has been defined as “raising your heart and mind to God.”  Well, that’s something we can choose to do throughout the day—even when we’re not at Mass or saying formal prayers like the Rosary.  Perhaps you’ve never thought of this before, but the fact of the matter is: to the extent that we make the Lord the reference point for what we say and do in our daily life—to that extent we’re raising our heart and mind to him!  For example, if we’re constantly trying to discern and carry out the will of God during the course of the day, we’re actually maintaining a prayerful spirit even if we’re not at Mass here in church, or saying formal prayers, or making a holy hour.

In that sense, it is possible to pray “without ceasing.”

Which brings us to the third choice St. Paul tells us to make.  He says, “In all circumstances, give thanks.”

In my Thanksgiving Day homily this year I spoke about Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who’s spent the better part of his professional career researching the subject of gratitude (what it is; why it’s important; how to cultivate it in our lives, etc.).  His work is so well-respected that some people have gone so far as to call him “the world’s leading scientific expert” on the subject.

Well, after studying more than 1,000 people of various ages (from 8 to 80), Dr. Emmons has reached the conclusion that giving thanks is beneficial to us in many different ways.  He puts the benefits he’s discovered into three separate categories: physical, psychological and social.  He says that, physically speaking, people who cultivate gratitude in their lives …
  • ·         Have stronger immune systems
  • ·         Are less bothered by aches and pains
  • ·         Tend to have lower blood pressure
  • ·         Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • ·         Sleep longer and feel more refreshed when they wake up

Psychologically they …
  • ·         Have higher levels of positive emotions
  • ·         Are more alert, alive and awake
  • ·         Experience more joy and pleasure
  • ·         Have more optimism and happiness

Socially they …
  • ·         Are more helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • ·         Are more forgiving
  • ·         Are more outgoing
  • ·         Feel less lonely and isolated

So I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that Dr. Emmons suggests that we spend some time giving thanks each and every day of our life, without exception.

St. Paul, I think, would highly approve!—although he probably would add that gratitude also has spiritual benefits, in addition to the ones mentioned by Dr. Emmons.

“Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  In all circumstances, give thanks.”

Three of the best choices we can possibly make in our lives.

May the Lord help us to make those choices every day—and reap the benefits.