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Monday, Second Week of Advent

December 11, 2006

Blessed St. Damasus’ Day! (look for his story in the “saints of Advent” category)

Isaiah 35:1-10 (God brings joy and salvation)
Psalm 85:9-14 “Our God will come to save us!”
+ Luke 5:17-26 (Jesus forgives the paralytic’s sins, then heals his body)

Where do we expect to find joy?

That question is especially relevant as we prepare for Christmas, the season of joy. Perhaps we think that if we find (or receive) just the right gifts, put up just the right decorations, serve just the right food, find the perfect tree and/or do just the right activities with the right people, then we will have a truly merry Christmas. But what often seems to happen is that we get caught up in an adrenaline rush that leaves us cold and empty on December 26th (or whenever the end of last holiday gathering leaves our house–and our heart–sadly vacant).

Christmas-induced depression is proverbial. We’re supposed to be happy and we’re not, which makes the disappointment that much harder to bear. What went wrong? We know that God came to bring us joy. He says so in passages too numerous to quote, but today’s reading from Isaiah is one of them: “Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return…crowned with everlasting joy…sorrow and mourning will flee”. …everlasting joy, not a flash in the pan. Jesus doesn’t come on December 25th, only to leave us the next day. He says, “I am with you always, until the end of the world!” (Matthew 28:20). Christmas Day is only the beginning!

So why don’t we experience it that way? Well, maybe we’re looking for joy in the wrong places. Jesus didn’t say, “Seek ye first all things, and the Kingdom of God shall be added unto you”. He said “Seek first His Kingship over you, His way of holiness, and all these things shall be added besides” (Matthew 6:33). Note that Isaiah said that joy would radiate from those whom the Lord had ransomed. That’s where the joy comes from.

Picture Jesus trying to carry an emaciated prisoner out of a dark, dank dungeon while the man clings desperately to the prison bars, protesting, “Jesus, You don’t understand! This is all I have! I can’t leave it.” God came to ransom us from the slavery of sin. If we refuse His kingship, if we won’t let go of the attachments that keep us from fulfilling His perfect plan for us, then we don’t allow Him to ransom us. We refuse His joy. All too often, our preparations for Christmas leave us clinging even more tightly to our prison bars, to our attempts to make ourselves happy.

[Sin] is the root of human unhappiness. Other things may make life unpleasant, uncomfortable, extraordinarily difficult, but not necessarily unhappy. We can find happiness in ignorance, in terrible physical fatigue, in back-breaking labour. But happiness is not to be found in the heart of a sinner. He may wear the mask of pleasure and carry an air of bravado about with him as a protection from the pity of others. But no one knows better than the priest that no great sinner needs to be urged to shame and remorse; that sinner has drunk deep of the cup of misery and knows well its bitterness. -Walter Farrell, A Companion to the Summa

This is why Advent is a season of penance, a time of sacrifice. It’s a time to let go of our chains and prison bars, and letting go is hard. Cooperating with God in shaking off the chains of sin and self-gratification takes trust, effort and humility. If Jesus is to be King over us, we have to (in Mary’s words) “Do whatever He tells [us]” (John 2:5). And in the process of setting us free, He tells us to do some hard, unpleasant things. “Reform your lives!” (Matthew 5:17). “Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors” (Matthew 5:44). “Keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). “If your right hand [or perhaps today, your television or your critical tongue or a certain train of thought, etc.] causes you to sin, cut it off!” (Mark 9:43). “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). “Confess your sins” (James 5:16). These things, which we would expect to be depressing, are what actually satisfy our souls and bring lasting joy.

This is one of those cases where we can’t judge by appearances. Earthly pleasures look and sound very attractive, but once we’ve actually tasted them, we quickly tire of them. They fail to satisfy. Spiritual pleasures look unattractive, dull at best, from the outside. But once we’ve tasted their sweetness, we hunger for more. And since God is infinite, there’s always more!

The crowd in today’s Gospel tried to judge by appearances, much the way we do. When the paralyzed man was lowered through the roof, all they saw was a physical need. Jesus saw the man’s heart. He saw the gaping wounds of sin in his soul, and in His great compassion, He healed those first. “My friend, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20). Nobody could verify that, though, and the crowd protested. Who does this Jesus think He is, anyway–God?! So to bring home the fact that He was indeed God and did have the power to forgive, Jesus healed the man’s body as well. Then the crowd rejoiced.

Jesus still does that today. That’s why this season is so full of light and beauty, song and new beginnings. He gives us external things that can point us to the things that really matter (Philippians 1:10)–if we let them. The lights remind us that He is the Light of the world, the Light that shines in darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it (John 1:5). If we love sin, we will hate the Light because it exposes our sin, (see John 3:20), but if we turn away from our sin and come into His Light, He will show us the way home. Advent and Christmas beauty is a pale foretaste of the splendors of Heaven, a foretaste that can rouse in us an eagerness to join Him there, and to shun anything that would slow our progress. The songs remind us that He has put a new song in our mouths, a song of praise to our God. Are we singing His praises? In the new life of Baby Jesus, He models for us the new life to which He calls us. “I assure you, unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

May we take up Jesus’ challenge to let go of the things that enslave our souls, so that we may enter into His lasting Christmas joy.

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