Rorate Caeli

"Mary is the creature who in a unique way has opened the door to her Creator": A Homily for Gaudete Sunday

(Another marvelous homily from a traditional Catholic priest who has shared many of his sermons with us in the past.)
Χαίρετε ἐν κυρίῳ πάντοτε: πάλιν ἐρῶ, χαίρετε.
Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice! — Phil. 4:4
Gaudete Sunday
13 December 2015

Perhaps unique among all languages in the world, English distinguishes between a house and a home.  A house is “a building in which people live; a residence for human beings.”  A home, on the other hand, is: “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.”

A house, by itself, does not a home make.  A home comes about through family life.  A family that has no family life may live in a house, but it would not live in a home.  Such a family would be, as it were, a homeless family.

Taking the extreme case for the sake of clarity, consider the family that hardly does anything together: never eats a meal together, never prays together, never engages in any common activity together.  Would we be able to point to such a family and say, “See how they love one another?”  Not really.  If the members of this family did have any love for each other, it would be difficult to discern, both for an outside observer as well as for the family members themselves.  Nor would this family be characterized by the joy that flows from being in a loving environment.  For how can joy be present when love is absent?

On the other hand, a family that did live in a home would be full of  “domestic affections”, radiating the warmth of sacrificial love, and beaming with the joy of knowing such love and being in each other’s presence, and enjoying the peace arising from family unity and order.  That’s what transforms a house into a home.

Now, just as we can, by way of analogy, extend the notion of residence beyond the confines of a building (as when we say we reside in the City of Dayton or in the State of Ohio, or in the United States of America), so too we can extend the notion of house and home   We might speak of Dayton as our hometown, Ohio as our home state, and America as our homeland. And this is understandable, since people who live in the same place enjoy a common experience of that place with many others who live there.  

But we call ourselves Americans not simply because we happen to be American citizens, but because subscribe to certain principles concerning man and society, which principles are at least implicitly contained in the Constitution.  And yet, if, as James Madison, the putative ‘father’ of the Constitution claims, these principles so promote the multiplication of faction as to undermine over time the common moral fabric of the body politic, then the citizenry would be reduced to an accidental collection of individuals seeking their own private good without any regard for their proper common good.  Accordingly, the country would correspond more to a house than to a home.  And so it would be more sensible to speak of our “house-land” than our “homeland”.

But let’s extend the analogy as far as we can: let’s include the entire cosmos, all of reality.  Is there any sense in which we might also call the universe our home?  Or is it too nothing more than a house?  The prevailing secular worldview in which we live and breathe would have us understand the universe to be no more than a house.  According to the secular worldview, the universe, together with all it contains, is nothing more than a chance product of blind forces.  Love has nothing to do with our existence or our purpose in life.  In fact, in such a universe, what would our experience of love even be other than a form of selfishness?  Accordingly, when reality is interpreted through the secular worldview, what reason could anyone have to be joyful?  If we understand reality according to the secular worldview, then the universe (if it has any order at all) is at best a house.  And if the universe is only a house, whatever sense of home we might experience ourselves in our own life experience can only be illusory.  Whatever meaning we might give to our lives is merely a projection of our selfish desire for comfort and consolation in the face of a depressing meaninglessness — a projection onto a universe bereft of any intrinsic meaning or purpose.  Such a projection is but a veil that serves to hide this fearsome and debilitating ‘truth’ from the weak and pusillanimous: the ‘truth’ that whatever we strive for amounts to nothing more than a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  So much for the secular worldview.

But the Catholic worldview, which we express every time we recite the Creed or read the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John, does not peddle in comforting constructs and illusions.  For the Catholic worldview, far from leading to depression and despair, gives us cause for joy.  When we understand that God created the world from nothing by the power of His Word; that He loved the universe into being in perfect freedom; that He created us in His own image and likeness; that the Word became flesh in Christ Jesus, and that Our Blessed Lord showed us not only what true love looks like, but also that true love is real and lies at the heart of why we are here at all; when we understand that Christ gave us His Spirit so that we too could love Him and one another with His own divine love, entering into a communion with the Holy Trinity, then of course we have reason to rejoice.  And when we come into the “domus Dei”, the “house” — or better still, the home of God — we pray to God and worship Him in and through Christ as one spiritual family; we offer to God anew the holy Sacrifice of Christ’s loving work of redemption, and we receive that same Sacrifice as our spiritual food in holy communion.  What better reminder can we have of God’s love for us?  What better “source and summit” of our joy than the Holy Eucharist?  The man who lacks such spiritual joy shall find life increasingly empty, even unbearable.  Naturally, he will seek to mitigate or mask what we might call a temporal prelude to the eternal pain of loss which the souls of the damned suffer without any relief whatsoever.  For which reason, as St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle (Nich. Ethics, x, 6), observed, such a man, bereft of spiritual joy, will “have recourse to pleasures of the body” (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, q. 35, a. 4, ad 2m).

You will notice that Christian joy is so tied to Christian love that it is impossible to experience the one apart from the other.  As Boston College professor Peter Kreeft puts it, “The way to joy is sanctity, loving God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself.”

When St. Paul told the Philipians to “rejoice in the Lord always”, he wrote it in Greek: Χαίρετε ἐν κυρίῳ πάντοτε.  I mention the Greek because, when you compare what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians with the Angel Gabriel’s salutation to the Virgin Mary, it turns out that Gabriel says the same thing to the Blessed Mother.  In English, we say “Hail, full of grace” from the Latin, “Ave, gratia plena”.  But St. Luke, also writing in Greek, writes, “Chairē kecharitomenē,” which also means, “Rejoice, full of grace!”

Pope Benedict XVI explains the angelic salutation as follows: “At first glance, the term chairē, “rejoice”, looks like a normal greeting, common in the Greek world, but this word, when read against the background of the biblical tradition, takes on a much deeper meaning.  This same term is present four times in the Greek version of the Old Testament, and always as a proclamation of joy at the coming of the Messiah (cf. Zeph 3:14; Joel 2:21; Zech 9:9; Lam 4:21).  The angel’s greeting to Mary is thus an invitation to joy, a deep joy, it announces the end of the sadness that there is in the world in front of the limits of life, suffering, death, wickedness, the darkness of evil that seems to obscure the light of the divine goodness.  It is a greeting that marks the beginning of the Gospel, the Good News” — the Catholic worldview.

Pope Benedict then asks, “But why is Mary invited to rejoice in this way?  The answer lies in the second part of the greeting: ‘The Lord is with you.’  Here, too, in order to understand the meaning of the expression we must turn to the Old Testament.  In the Book of Zephaniah, we find this expression: ‘Rejoice, O daughter of Zion, … the King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst … The Lord, your God, in your midst is a mighty savior’ (3:14-17).  In these words there is a double promise made to Israel, to the daughter of Zion: God will come as a savior and will dwell in the midst of his people, in the womb — as they say — of the daughter of Zion.  In the dialogue between the angel and Mary, this promise is fulfilled to the letter: Mary is identified with the people espoused to God, she is truly the daughter of Zion in person; in her is fulfilled the expectancy for the final coming of God, in her the Living God makes his dwelling.”

And so, the joy of the Gospel belongs to our Blessed Mother, the daughter of Zion, because she freely accepted the divine will: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.  Again, in the words of Pope Benedict: “Mary is the creature who in a unique way has opened the door to her Creator, she has placed herself in his hands, without reserve.  She lives entirely from and in the relationship with the Lord; … And she submits freely to the word received, to the divine will in the obedience of faith.”

And so we can understand St. Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always” as a call to imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary by continuing to accept and believe in the Gospel, and remain faithful to Christ.  For the joy of the Gospel cannot be enjoyed apart from the Gospel, or apart from Christ.  But if we make the Good News about Christ Jesus the basis of our lives and the foundation of our understanding of reality, then even should men revile and persecute us, and speak all that is evil against us for Christ’s sake, even then shall we have reason to rejoice and exult.  For our reward will be very great in heaven (Mt. 5:11-12).  “If God be for us, who is against us?”  (Rm. 8:31).  Or, as professor Kreeft puts it, “No one who ever said to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and meant it with his heart, ever failed to find joy — not just in heaven, or even down the road in the future in this world, but in this world at that very moment, here and now.

“Every time I have ever said yes to God with something even slightly approaching the whole of my soul, every time I have not only said ‘Thy will be done’ but meant it, loved it, longed for it — I have never failed to find joy and peace at that moment. In fact, to the precise extent that I have said it and meant it, to exactly that extent have I found joy.”

Let us, then, surrender to God.  Let us always strive to do His will, that He may always dwell in us and we in Him as in a home, and that we may always rejoice in the knowledge of His infinite love for us.