Everything is a gift from God. Be thankful, and you will be joyful

by Thomas Gumbleton

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I think it's possible to be a little bit frustrated when we first hear the message from St. Paul this morning: "Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!" See, be filled with joy. Most of us probably have discovered that being joyful isn't something you can suddenly be by sort of pushing a button. You know, if you're really discouraged and frustrated and upset and things are going badly, how do you suddenly be joyful?

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Full text of the readings

Well, St. Paul does go on to tell us how it might be possible. The first thing he says: "Pray always." Pray always, and especially, he says, "Pray with gratitude; always be thankful." See, he's trying to get us to go kind of deeply into our spirit life and to understand that everything we have -- not even these things are not all that good at times. Our very life, our very existence, everything is a gift from God, and so we should be thankful, and being thankful can lead to joyfulness. But even more, Paul says, to not quench the spirit. He's reminding us that the spirit of Jesus lives within each one of us.

And perhaps you recall what Jesus said at the Last Supper. You've heard it before, I'm sure, but in John's Gospel he has a long discussion with his disciples -- a time of profound sadness for Jesus because he was facing a cruel torture and death. But he could still say to the disciples, as the conversation comes to an end, "I've told you all this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete." Even at that very moment of profound sadness, deep within the spirit of Jesus was a joy without limit, a sense of peace because he was so in touch with God.

And so what Jesus is telling those disciples, and St. Paul was telling us today: It is possible to be joyful, especially as we enter into the last part of the season of Advent and remind ourselves of what did happen 2,000 years ago when God, God's very self, entered into our history, became human, one like us in every way except sin. God came to be a brother to all of us, to love us, give us God's love. But if we're going to enter deeply into ourselves in prayer, and by prayer we must remember it's not always asking for things from God. It's trying to listen, hear what God is speaking deep within our spirit, and listen.

And so today we listen to words from the prophet Isaiah, words that were very familiar to Jesus. Perhaps his favorite passage in all of the Scriptures, because when he was asked to read in the synagogue at Galilee at the beginning of his public life, those very words that we heard this morning in our first lesson -- Jesus, when he was handed the scroll, unrolled it until he found this passage, the passage from the 61st chapter of Isaiah.

And Jesus proclaimed, "The spirit of God is upon me. God sends me to proclaim good news to the poor, to give the blind new sight, to heal the brokenhearted, to set the downtrodden free, and proclaim God's year of jubilee, a year of fullness of life and joy and peace." And after Jesus had read those words, he said, "This day, this Scripture passage is fulfilled, even as you listen."

Even as you listen, as Jesus says those words, it's being fulfilled in him. He has come to bring good news to the poor, to give the blind new sight, heal the brokenhearted, set the downtrodden, the oppressed, free, and so on. And so if we begin to listen deeply to Jesus and we begin to hear what he asks of us because, as we are his disciples, we don't just listen to those words. We begin to try to carry them out because that's what he came to do -- to announce his good news, to gather together a community of disciples to hear that good news, and to act on it.

I think all of us are very impressed with Pope Francis. Not even we who are members of the Christian community, but those outside the community are discovering here a person who in a way sort of lights up the world. And what do you detect in Francis? A spirit of joy; isn't that true when you see his picture, and when he's walking around the square of St. Peter's, and he stops to talk to people, picks up little children, and he smiles?

You can tell here is the person filled with joy and a deep sense of peace when he speaks. And I think there's a direct connection between what Francis does and the way he is, this joy-filled person. Because what's he doing that draws so much attention? He's fulfilling those words of the prophet Isaiah. He's bringing good news to the poor.

Just last week, one day, a little child was in his presence and kind of confronted him. The child was very sad, and Francis took the time to talk, and the child was sad because his pet had died. And Francis, you know, has such a sense of connecting with people that right away he was able to assure that child, "It's OK. There will be a way you'll be reunited with your pet again."*

And you know some people are saying, "Are pets in heaven?" Well, we have to remember heaven is not a place. It's a relationship with God, and all of creation is coming into new life. That's what Paul says in the letter to the Romans: "All of creation is growing and struggling to come to a fullness of creation," and our world continues to evolve and all of creation is evolving, coming to that fullness of life that God has promised to all of us. So that little child is comforted, knowing that it's not forever.

See, and so Francis does that -- he brings a sense of joy. Another thing that impressed me so much recently was, you remember he appointed an archbishop to be his person to go out into the city of Rome. You know, that's his diocese, so Francis takes responsibility for it, but he can't go out like he used to do when he was in Argentina. He would go out into the slum areas and he would sit and talk with people. They might not even know who he was. He was the archbishop, but he came to talk to them, to understand them, to help them, reassure them.

But he can't do it now every day in Rome, so he appointed this archbishop to go and do it, and he's been doing this. He's going out, and he came back to Francis a week or two ago and said, "Well you know, what the homeless people need are showers." Now, if you think about it, that's very obvious in a way. If you're living on the streets, you have no job, no income, you're dependent on others for food and everything, you have no place to take a shower.

So what does Francis do? He orders that showers be built inside the Vatican so that the poor, the homeless, can come and have a shower, have their clothes laundered and dried, and then they go back out into the street. What a difference that makes. See again, that's bringing good news to the poor. He's healing the brokenhearted, helping to bring the joy and the goodness and the love of Jesus into the hearts of people, and especially those who are poor and oppressed, the most vulnerable.

And perhaps if we, in our efforts to come to know Jesus and determine that we're going to try to follow Jesus more faithfully, we, too, will do what Isaiah proclaims that Jesus says, "This is my work." We'll try to bring that good news of comfort and strength and joy to people when they need it. We'll give material help to others when they need it. We'll help to change the structures in our world that brings injustice that oppress people -- economic structures and societal structures, racism and sexism and so on. We'll help to change those things to give the blind new sight, heal the brokenhearted, set the downtrodden free.

And when we begin to do all of that, we will discover that Jesus is alive within my heart, in my spirit, and we'll listen to him more carefully, more deeply. And finally, as we do that, we'll discover what St. Paul says at the end of that exhortation today: "The God of peace will make you holy and bring you to completion, make you completely blameless in spirit, soul, and body, until the coming of Christ, our lord."

The God who is faithful will do it, will bring us that peace and joy that Paul proclaims at the beginning of that lesson. You and I, if we follow and listen to Jesus, will begin to experience that fullness of peace and joy, and be disciples of Jesus who will carry it out into our world so that slowly, but definitely, the reign of God will begin to break forth fully. And all people will have a full and joyous and beautiful life.

*Editor's note: This does not appear to have happened; see David Gibson's story, "Sorry, Fido: Pope Francis did not say our pets are going to heaven."

[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church in 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.]

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