Rorate Caeli

A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent - Gaudete

From the Epistle reading, St. Paul to the Philippians: 
Rejoice in the Lord always, rejoice, and I say again, rejoice.
Giotto - St. John the Baptist (Peruzzi Altarpiece - detail) - 1315
And so today on this Gaudete Sunday we are asked to rejoice.  The rose vestments, the rose candle, flowers on the altar, all point to the joy that is at the heart of the anticipation of Advent.  And yet we come here amidst a world that is filled with war and strife, amidst a world in which there is so much suffering, a world that seems more and more tired and adrift to the point where many people believe that there is no point.  But more importantly, for us who gather here for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is difficult to obey the command to rejoice when we carry with us so much of the confusion in the Church, the Church that seems to have forgotten what the point is and what is the source of the joy that she must convey to her own people and to the world.

And it is into this situation that the figure of John the Baptist comes to us today.  He comes to us directly, in our face.  There he is in his animal skins, there he is preaching about repentance, there he is crying out about preparing the way of the Lord, there he is pointing his long, bony finger as in the Eisenheim altarpiece:  “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi:  Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”  It is John the Baptist who is the reminder today in this Advent season that reform and repentance are at the heart of the Christian message.  It is John who reminds us all today that what is needed in the Church today is reform, pure and simple.  And this reform has nothing to do with structure and power; it has nothing to do with more lay participation in decision making.  Why do the laity think they would not mess up the job of running the Church as much as the clergy have done?  No.  What is need is the reform of the clergy, of bishops, priests, deacons, the reform of the Religious, the reform of the laity, of men and women and children, a reform that is a genuine turning away from the world of sin and death and a turning to the light of the crucified and risen Lord.  We have heard, my friends, and we will continue to hear calls for changes in Church structures.  We will hear calls for more openness, more women in leadership positions, more democracy in the Church.  Those who call for these things are the blind leading the blind.  For John’s message is clear today: personal repentance and reform are what are needed, and that reform must begin with each person who calls himself a follower of Jesus Christ. It involves that decision that must be made every single day of our lives, a decision not to follow the blindness of the world that denies sin and pretends that death does not exist, but instead to follow the truth who is Jesus Christ and to live one’s life in loving harmony with him.

John the Baptist asks:  “Are you looking for joy on this Gaudete Sunday?  Then look at me as I point beyond myself.”  This is the man whose joy increases with every question that he is asked:  “Are you Elijah?” “No.” “Are you the Prophet?” “No.” Are you the Messiah?”  “No.”  And with each denial, a denial that comes from the depths of his self-knowledge, a self-knowledge made possible only by his humility:  with each No his joy increases, for with each No, each denial of himself, he witnesses to the One who is to come after him, the one who will effect what John can only do symbolically, the One who will take away the sins of the world.

The world will never understand what Christmas is about.  The world will always find it a let-down, because the world cannot see the link between the gospel for Gaudete Sunday and joy.  We all want to hear the angels sing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo”.  But do we ask why the angels are singing?  Obviously, you say, because Christ is born, the babe is born in Bethlehem.  That is true, but the angels are not singing merely to mark the birth of this child.  They sing, because they see in the wood of the manger the wood of the cross, they sing because this birth begins the definitive triumph over sin and death, the joy of the angels on that Christmas night is the same joy of the angels who collect the Precious Blood of Jesus as he hung on the cross.  They sing the same song of salvation.

How hollow is this song to a world that has banished sin from its vocabulary, a world in which personal responsibility for one’s actions is denied either by a tragic sentimentality or by a psycho-babble that denies sin itself.  How hollow is this song of the angels to a Catholics who still mouth the Confiteor at Mass but who refuse to strike the breast, for this is a Christianity that in fact no longer believes in sin, in judgment, no longer believes in the reality of the power of death to kill in an absolute way.

 How hollow this song is to a Church that masks its fear to confront the world of sin by fleeing to the peripheries instead of facing the reality of the secular city in its very heart, a Church that wishes to reduce herself to a field hospital where the bandages are purposely sterile instead of being soaked in the blood of Christ.  What would the Church do today if John the Baptist appeared in her midst like some character from a Flannery O’Connor story, crazed and drunk with the power of the living and fearsome God and preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins?  He would be treated at best as an embarrassment, and not only because he would smell bad.  But most probably he would be have to be silenced, for he would get in the way of the project of the denaturing, the defanging, the devirilization, the demysterionization, the de-evangelization of the Church.

For fierce John the Baptist would not fit in in any Synod called to make what is hard and true soft and false,  or at a dinner party on the Borgo Pio in Rome where those who plan such things, and who write Eucharistic prayers on napkins, dine in an eminently civilized manner, totally out of touch with the reality of the devastation wreaked upon their own people by a manufactured “spirit of the Council” , or in any slappy -clappy Mass understood as a celebration of each other where John’s own words, “behold the Lamb of God”, are the prelude to standing in a line to receive a piece of bread in their hands that is a symbol, a symbol of that man to whom John pointed to. But that man is no symbol of God, no symbol of the terrible truth of God, no symbol of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is no symbol but is the reality,  God himself in the flesh, that flesh that is crucified on the Cross for the sins of the world, that flesh that is given to us to be adored and then, and only then,  only after adoration, to be eaten, in the re-presentation of that Sacrifice which is the Mass.

Rejoice in the Lord always!  Gaudete Sunday! Christian joy!  The sixth verse of the medieval carol, “The Seven Joys of Mary” is for me the test, the test of whether one really understands what Christian joy is.  Listen to the verse and see whether it brings joy to your heart, or perplexity.

“The sixth good joy that Mary had,
It was the joy of six.
To see her own Son, Jesus Christ
Upon the crucifix.
Upon the crucifix, good man, and blessed may He be.
O Father, Son and Holy Ghost
Throughout eternity.”

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla