December 11, 2016
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-6, 10; Letter of James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
One of the good things about prayer is how boring it sometimes is.
Sometimes I feel joy when I pray, sometimes I feel the presence of God, but a lot of the time when I wake up in the morning and do the Liturgy of the Hours, I’m cranky and preoccupied and nothing seems to be happening. I’m just going through the motions.
One of the good things about mass is how boring it sometimes is. Sometimes I feel the presence of God, sometimes something touches me, but usually my back hurts, and I’m hungry, and I’m just counting the minutes until I can go home.
Yes. That’s a good thing.
And then one morning I’m walking across a little bridge, and the trees on either side form a kind of tunnel, and I can smell the deep, rich smell of leaves. It’s been raining hard, and the stream is swollen, the water is shooting through the gap, and for a moment it’s as if I’m remembering something really beautiful and really important but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.
“God is always a surprise,” Pope Francis says. “You never know where and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him. You must, therefore, discern the encounter.”
Weather is the perfect metaphor for this, its unpredictability, the fact that’s it’s beyond our control, as in the Letter of James today. “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” This is the metaphor, too, in the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, that faith is like a garden. We prepare the soil, and we go to the well and bring up the water, but in the end we have to wait for the rain, and the rain is beyond us. We can’t make it come.
God is the rain. Grace is the rain.
And so boredom is a good thing, even desolation is a good thing, because it shows us our need. It shows us that we’re not in charge, however much we pray and no matter how good we try to be.
It’s a kind of proof in a way. If we were just making all this up, we’d be doing it all the time. We’d be making ourselves feel good every minute. But we can’t.
The joy must be coming from somewhere else, and it is. It’s coming from God.
This is why we pray, and this is why we come to mass, to remember: to remember the moments of light, which are subtle and fleeting and easy to doubt; and even more, to remember that we didn’t make them happen.
Do this in memory of me, Jesus tells us.
When we saw someone smile. When we heard a song. When we prayed the rosary or shook someone’s hand or read a line in a book. God is all around us, everywhere, in all the small things.
And at mass, too, of course. In the Eucharist. In all of us here, together.
This is the meaning of the Immaculate Conception, which we celebrated a few days ago. The Christmas commercials keep telling us that if only we buy this or bake this or click on this, we can feel joy for sure, on the spot. But as Pope Pius IX wrote in 1854, when he formally announced the dogma, “Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by the singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Savior of the human race, preserved free from the stain of original sin.”
Mary isn’t the source of grace. Jesus is. She was made sinless before she had any chance to earn it, before she was even conscious at all, and Christ gives himself to us, too, freely, as gift, even when we’re not paying attention, even when we turn away. Mary was the receiver, as we can be, she was the conduit, as we can be—John the Baptist was the receiver, the pointer, as we can be–however stained and sinful we are.
This is the paradox. This is the mystery.
Some of you may remember Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where about a year and a half ago a gunman walked through the door and killed nine people sitting in a prayer circle. They had been studying the Parable of the Sower. A grandmother. A little girl.
The pastor was one of those killed, and one Sunday a few months later the interim pastor, the Reverend Norvel Goff, climbed into the pulpit to preach.
“Many have asked,” Goff says, “‘How are you? How is Mother Emanuel?’ My response is: ‘With your prayers and encouragement and with God guiding us, we’ll be all right.”
Of course they’re not happy. How could they be happy? But then Goff makes a distinction, the crucial distinction: between what he calls “the banality of happiness” and the spiritual condition of “joy.”
Joy. Not a feeling but a faith, that God is God and God is mercy and that in some way we can’t comprehend there is a justice and a love at work in the world stronger than our doubts and stronger than our fears and stronger than any evil within us or outside us.
“Even in the midst of trials and tribulations,” the Reverend Goff proclaimed that Sunday, “we still have joy.”
In the darkness of Advent we hope for the light, and this, too, is why we come to mass and why we pray, not just to remember but to hope, and to hope in faith and in confidence that the light we long for will come and in fact is already here. “He is coming who is everywhere present,” says an ancient Church Father. This is the paradox, this is the mystery, for no corner of our lives is without his tenderness and without his presence, no corner of the universe is without his saving energy and his saving love, and it’s only we who need to turn towards it, we who need to open our hearts and open our eyes.
And the rain will come and the streams will swell and the joy will rise in us, too, and even the darkness is grace, even the dying of the leaves. The Lord is here, and “the land exults.” The Lord is here, and we are “crowned with everlasting joy.”