We've all had bad days once in a while, I'm sure. When we do, we sometimes feel a little bit grumpy or out of sorts. It doesn't really help, I don't think, for someone to come along and say, "Be happy! Rejoice! Everything's going to be okay." You don't feel that way at all. That's sort of what happens in today's Scriptures. Only if we listen to them carefully, we discover that there's an underlying reason why, even in the midst of difficulties and struggles, we can still be joyful.
Third Sunday of Advent
In fact, it makes me think of Jesus at the Last Supper. He knows what's going to happen, ready to undergo his most terrible passion and death, humiliation, suffering, and torture. Yet, at one point if you remember, Jesus says to the disciples, "I tell you all this (he'd been speaking to them at length) so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete." So it is possible that even when things on sort of an external level are not going well, deep within us there can be a spirit of deep joy, a sense of peace. How could that happen?
Our lessons today, I think, help us to understand. In the first lesson, the Chosen People had been under very bad leadership. A couple of the kings were turning to idol worship and leading the people away from the true God. There were corruptions throughout the whole people of Israel. Then they had gone to war against God's wishes, finally been defeated, and carried off into exile. It was a time of terrible struggle and suffering, and the leadership was not of much help at all.
But there was a remnant, a few who remained very faithful to God. It was to those few that Zephaniah then spoke in our first lesson because they had been faithful to God and as Zephaniah pointed out, they had experienced God's presence in their own person during that time of exile. Things were chaotic and terrible all around them, but the few, the remnant, had been able to stay close to God. Because of that, God was going to bring them out of exile.
When Zephaniah preaches to them and tells them to rejoice, it's with good reason. Even though their sufferings are going on and they're not going to be over overnight, they know they're close to God. God is with them; God is in their midst. Those people, even in the midst of all that suffering, experienced a deep sense of joy. The prophet proclaims it in the words that we heard this morning, "Rejoice, rejoice! God is near." The same thing is true of St. Paul.
When he wrote those words in our second lesson today, he was writing to the people of Philippi, but he was writing from jail. He had been taken prisoner because he had been preaching about Jesus. Jails are not pleasant places. They were terrible places to be in Paul's time, probably even worse than we would know. Even in the midst of all of that, Paul writes to the people at Philippi, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice! May everyone experience your gentle understanding heart." Why? "The Lord is near."
So Paul urges them, "Don't even be anxious about anything. Resort to prayer and supplication together with thanksgiving." Then he tells them, "When you do this, when you go within yourself, find God present in your deepest spirit, then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keeps your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." In the midst of the difficulties of the world in which we live and we're living at a very difficult time, I think this is a very important message for us.
There's violence, suffering, killing, terrorism, war, huge numbers of people driven out of their homes into exile. We read about it, we experience some of it to some extent, and it causes us to be fearful. Some of that could happen to us, especially the terrorism, so we worry; we're fearful. But even in the midst of all of this and the struggles that we face, if we go deeply within our own spirit and find God present there, then we can be at peace like Zephaniah, like Paul, like Jesus.
Perhaps in order to find our way into that deep spirit where we find peace and joy, we have to listen to what John the Baptist says, "Do you want Jesus to come into your life? (He was preaching about the coming of Jesus.) They say, "What shall we do?" He tells them very simple things, in a way. But it's the same message that Jesus later preaches, "Go out to those who are poor and in need. Assist them, share your food and clothing—whatever you have share with those who have not."
Going further, Jesus tells his disciples, "Welcome the stranger. Bring in the homeless." Those are the kinds of things that we do to prepare for the coming of Jesus into our midst, into our hearts, into our deepest spirit. They are the things that John preached, that we heard in the Gospel today, to the tax collectors, to the soldiers, to every ordinary person, that he would preach to us and that Jesus preached. If we do those kinds of things, that's how we prepare.
Then if we come into a spirit of prayerfulness and quiet, we will discover God is near, God is within my heart, God is in my spirit. As I welcome God into my heart and spirit, I begin to feel the peace and the joy. As Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper, "My peace I give to you, not a peace that the world can give. I tell you all these things so that my joy may be in your midst and that your joy may be complete."
Now it's up to us to listen to Jesus, listen to Paul, listen to Zephaniah, make sure we become aware that God is near, and welcome God into our hearts by doing the things that Jesus asks us to do. Then that peace and that joy, even in the midst of our difficulties, struggles, and sufferings will be real for each one of us and we can help to spread peace and joy wherever we go.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]