This is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent in which we are called to rejoice, as we enter the final stretch before the season of Christmas.
I have found that in some years, I experience Advent in a very profound way. It’s like I don’t even have to make much of an effort. Physically, emotionally and spiritually speaking, I am “in” the season of Advent and looking with great anticipation toward Christmas. And then there are years like this one when I feel like I am kind of going through the motions. Like everyone else is having this great spiritual experience, and I am just an observer.
In years like this, it’s hard to come to Mass and hear the first reading from Isaiah when he says, “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.” It’s hard to hear St. Paul in the second reading say “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks…May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I don’t know about you, but I know that I am not “perfectly holy.” I am not “blameless.” And when I’m not “feeling” God’s grace bringing me to that perfection, I can be subject to all kinds of doubts. I begin to wonder if maybe holiness isn’t really possible for me. Maybe this is as good as things are going to get. Maybe God has gotten tired of me and my sins.
And I begin to reminisce about happier Advents and Christmases. But here is the thing. I remember how happy I was, but I seem to forget what a wicked little tyrant I was at the time. It’s true! I know that holiness is still a long way away for me. But I am much closer than I used to be, thanks be to God. God has done great things for me! And I’m sure that if you thought about where you have come from, you know it to be true of yourselves! Probably many of us are not there yet, but God is bringing us along! It’s good to look honestly at our past now and then to remember how far we have come.
It’s also good to remember that God is not done with us yet! I was thinking about this and it reminded me of my dad. He just turned 83 this last September.
Growing up, if you would have asked me to describe my dad, “saintly” is not an adjective that would have come to mind. I would have said he had a “bad temper” (especially when we were moving cows.) I would have said he was a “hard worker.” I would have even said that he was a “good man.” But I would never have called him a saint.
Yet, I remember, because he always got up so early, he also went to bed very early. And I can vividly picture him kneeling down in front of a chair outside of my parent’s bedroom every night and praying. Sometimes it was only for a minute. But he did it every night before he went to bed.
I’ve shared before that about 12 years ago, dad was diagnosed with emphysema. He smoked for most of his life. The doctor said that he only has about 30% lung capacity but his heart looks like that of a 30-year-old. Thanks to that and the miracle of modern medicine, dad is still living. But he has had to make changes.
For most of his life, he measured his own self-worth by how much he had accomplished on a given day. But he liked to work hard so for most of his life, that philosophy suited him. Now, he found, walking across the room was enough to exhaust him. So he couldn’t accomplish much of anything. As a result, he was feeling worthless.
These last 12 years I’ve seen my dad struggle with that. And yet, I have also seen his faith grow tremendously. These days, he only misses Mass if he is too sick to go. He prays the Rosary with Mother Angelica and her sisters on EWTN every night. He frequents the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Because mom’s hearing is diminished, he spends most of his days communicating in a very loud voice. More than once, the priest has told him in the confessional “Bill, lower your voice or the whole town is going to know what you’ve been up to.”
Even if he goes to Mass he will watch the televised Mass which is filmed up in Casper. He keeps me posted on which priest is saying the tv Mass each month. And he even tells me which priests give the best homilies. That is a secret I must now take to the grave. While he can’t do much physically, his mind is forever focused on trying to take care of my mom.
I can’t judge the state of dad’s soul but I see there is a gentleness and a sense of peace that wasn’t there before. If he is not yet a saint, it seems to me that he is very close. “Saintly” is now a word that comes to mind when I think of him. Obviously, that makes me happy for him. But it also gives me hope.
While I can’t presume that God is going to allow my own path to sanctity to go on for 83 years, I do see how God’s mercy has allowed for time in my dad’s case. I do see how God took the smallest acts of piety on my dad’s part, like kneeling down in prayer every night, to bring him closer to holiness. It gives me hope. I am sure if you thought about it, there are parents or grandparents or friends in your life who God has been sanctifying right before your eyes.
So I think, when we experience those times where we feel like we are just going through the motions, we have to trust that even then, God is shaping us in some mysterious way. We don’t want to presume that we have lots of time, but it’s good to remember that God does have time. He has all of eternity. And even if we can’t see progress, God does see it. So don’t give up. Don’t be scandalized by your own sins. God is not surprised by them. He knows perfectly well the evil we are all capable of. So don’t be scandalized by your sins, repent of them.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down. What matters is that you get back up one more time.
Most importantly, do not allow your struggles to cause you to give up thinking about heaven. Do you still think about heaven? Do you allow yourself the time to dream about what it will be like?
I think sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to think about heaven because we know we can’t get there. But God knows it to. That is why he sent his only son. When St. Paul calls us to be perfect in holiness and to be preserved blameless, he says “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.” You see? It’s not all on us thanks be to God!
So if you feel like this Advent is one where you are going through the motions, remember, it is all in anticipation of the gift of Christ who is leading us to perfection and to the glory of heaven.
So let’s allow ourselves time this week to dream big. Imagine a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God. Picture a place where every broken heart will be healed, where captives and prisoners will be set free. A place where there is no more war, or violence, or abuse. Where there is no more cancer or disease, no more addictions. And there will be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain. Every tear will be wiped away, and when we enter heaven’s gate, we will be greeted by lost loved ones.
My brothers and sisters, let us rejoice heartily in the LORD, for he is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.