Rejoice! The Lord is Near!

Rejoice in the Lord always! For hundreds of years we Catholics have read this same passage from Paul on this Third Sunday of Advent.1 If we’ve been reading the same thing for so long on the same day, it must be important. What is Paul saying that the Church wants us to hear in this reading? The Gospel today gives us a clue. John the Baptist reminds us that the mighty one is coming, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, who will separate the wheat from the chaff. The people in the Gospel repeat the question over and over: What should we do?

The people knew that they had to do something to prepare for the Messiah, but they weren’t sure what to do. The people knew that they must be ready for him. Last week we heard the prophecy of Isaiah which told us to prepare the way for the Lord. It told us to straighten the road, to make it smooth and easier for him to travel. While the Jewish people would have originally understood that this is what you actually do when a king visits them, we now can take a new meaning from it. We must cleanse our hearts and our souls and prepare them to receive the Lord at Christmas. We must make a path within our hearts for the Lord, a straight and smooth path upon which he may travel. John tells us that this path is paved with good deeds. We must give to the poor, conduct our business honestly, and not extort others.

This sounds like a lot of work, and it definitely doesn’t seem to be something over which we would normally rejoice. But this work of preparation is just the beginning! John the Baptist was the last of the prophets. He never saw the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord. He was not blinded by Jesus like Paul was. John the Baptist never heard the Good News of the New Covenant: he only had half the story!

Paul knows the whole story. He knew that yes, we must repent of our former lives. He knew that we must die and rise again in Christ. Paul knew that we must always remember the presence of the Lord in our new lives as Christians. The first step to remember the Lord’s presence is to rejoice in the Lord always. We cannot rejoice when we are burdened by our sins and our anxieties. Instead, we must give these up. We must rid ourselves of sin and anxiety and give everything over to God. Paul knew that the world wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. He knew that there were hard times in store for each of us. In fact, in this part of Philippians he is trying to resolve a disagreement between two of his former co-workers and evangelists! This doesn’t stop Paul, though. He tells us to turn everything over to the Lord, and he promises us that the peace of God […] will guard [our] hearts and minds, which Paul knows will help us to press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:14 NRSVCE)

During this time of year, the Lord is calling us to be near to him in a special and unique way. We are quickly approaching the celebration of our Lord’s birth. Jesus’s birth reminds us that God became a human being, just like you and me. He had a mom, just like you and me. He had an earthly father, just like you and me. He walked and talked and worked just like you and me! God knows how hard it is to be human. That is why he came to help us. God wants us to live forever with him in Heaven. We were struggling to live the lives necessary to join God in Heaven, and because God loves us, he came down to us and showed us how to do it. This is what the Church reminds us every year when we celebrate Christmas.

But it’s not quite Christmas yet. We still have a little over a week before it gets here. Why is the Church calling us to rejoice now, instead of waiting until Christmas? We must rejoice, because we know that our Lord is coming, and we know why our Lord is coming. We know that he is coming to save us. We know that he is coming to take away all those anxieties that we give him. He is coming to help us to live the good and moral lives that we struggle to live every day. Jesus is coming, and he’s coming very soon. We rejoice because we are nearing the end of our preparation time. If we have been using our time in Advent well, then we have begun to live our lives in a new and better way. We have begun to cast out all our fears and doubts and pains and struggles, and we have begun to give them all back to God. Not only is the Lord coming closer and closer to us in the celebration of Christmas, but he is coming closer and closer to us because we our lives are better reflecting him to others. We are becoming more able to receive God’s love and to enter his Kingdom at the end of our lives. This is cause for rejoicing!

Rejoice! The birth of our Lord and Savior is near!

Today’s Readings
December 16, 2018
3rd Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Isaiah 12:2-3, 4bcd, 5-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18

Image of God

What if Jesus had said, “Why are you testing me? Hand me one of the children.” He held a child in his arms and said, “Whose image do you see inscribed upon this little one?”

When my friends have a baby, it’s common to hear “she looks just like her mom!” or “he has his father’s eyes!” The baby is, in a very true way, an image of his or her parents. They look like one another! What’s more, parents bestow a name upon their child. This name is emblazoned on the child throughout his or her life. This name is how we tell one person from another, and it was given to them by their parents.

But there is another who has given us a name, even if we do not know him. [God] called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew [him] not.1 He has not only called each one of us by name, but he has given each of us a title—a title unique to us. Each of us is unique, each of us is special. None of us are the same. We are each called to reflect God’s glory in a different way, in a way that no one else can. Not only did God call us by name, and not only did he give us each a title, but the very first chapter of the first book of the Bible tells us that God created humankind in his image.2 Each one of us is a unique reflection of the image of God.

I reply to Jesus, “Yours! I see your image in this little one!” Jesus says, “Then repay to Washington and Hamilton and Lincoln what belongs to them, and repay to God what belongs to God.”

God’s image is inscribed on me, how am I to repay God what belongs to him? When we pay our taxes to the government, we give a part of our money back to the government that issued it. How do we give a part of ourselves to God? We can’t, but that doesn’t stop us from trying, does it?

There are days when I want to try to put God in his silo. In college, I would go to Mass and then think, “God, you’ve got your hour for the week. Now it’s time to go have some fun.” Even now, I catch myself saying, “God, I said my prayers for the day. I’ve been to Mass. Now it’s time for me to get some real work done. Come back tomorrow.” As if we could limit our response to God to a certain day or time! One of the names given to Jesus is Emmanuel: God is with us. God is always with us! When we recognize his image in ourselves and in others, we are reminded that God is always with us.

When we recognize God, and all the gifts that he has given us, can we honestly sit back and do nothing? God has given us our lives, our families, our friends, our talents, everything. How do we send God a thank you note for all he has given us? We dedicate ourselves to him. We give of our resources to support his work on this earth. We spend time with him in prayer. We live virtuous lives. We always strive to remember that God is with us!

Today’s Readings:
Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22:15-21