Homily – Gaudete Sunday, 13th December 2015
Homily – Gaudete Sunday, 13th December 2015. Opening of the Holy Door at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo.
Traditionally this Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday; the Sunday for Rejoicing. As we look around us, we might be inclined to think that there is little enough to make us rejoice. Just as the economy was showing signs of recovery, the countryside has been devastated by floods. The situation in the Middle East seems to be getting worse, with the violence spilling over into the wider world. And none of this takes into account the personal struggles that people experience with their own health or in their own family lives. How can we be expected to rejoice? Maybe it was different two thousand years ago.
The truth, of course, is that it was not any easier for people two thousand years ago. The preaching of John the Baptist gives us some indication of the problems they faced with cheating tax-collectors and soldiers who intimidated people to get money from them. So why the focus on rejoicing?
The Lord is in Your Midst
The invitation to rejoice is directly connected to the “feeling of expectancy” to which St. Luke refers in the Gospel. The people sensed that the Lord was near and John the Baptist confirms that hope when he speaks of “someone” who is coming, who is more powerful than He is. The first reading, likewise, encourages the people to “have no fear, do not let your hands fall limp. The Lord your God is in your midst”. We are not alone.
The God of the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Scriptures) is often thought of as a God who strikes fear into the hearts of his people. These days we tend to speak more in terms of “wonder and awe” rather than “fear of the Lord”. Be that as it may. It is perfectly appropriate that we should stand in awe of God; that we should appreciate the gap that there is between the greatness and the goodness of God on the one hand and our own smallness and sinfulness on the other. But that is only one side of the story. The other side, which is found in our Scripture readings today is the God who loves us so much that He dances for joy.
Listen again to the words of the prophet Zephaniah.
“The Lord your God is in your midst…
He will exult with joy over you
He will renew you by his love
He will dance with shouts of joy for you, as on a day of festival”
The Jubilee of Mercy
This is the meaning of the Jubilee of Mercy which Pope Francis has initiated on Dec. 8th, last Tuesday, and in which we are all invited to join. Mercy is the meeting point between the justice of God and the Love of God. When we fall, or when we are stuck in a rut, even a rut of our own making, God wants nothing more than to reach down to us and lift us up. For that reason, as Pope Francis tells us,
“Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The temptation…to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. ….However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert.”
The Holy Door:
There is an ancient tradition that, during a Jubilee Year, a special Holy Door is opened in the four Major Basilicas in Rome. The open door is a symbol of welcome. It is about coming home; about entering once more, or more richly, into the family of God. It is a reminder that we are pilgrims and that we have a journey to make. In a way which has become typical of him, Pope Francis decided that, in order to make it possible for everybody to participate personally and symbolically in the Jubilee, a Holy Door should be opened in every Cathedral and in many places of pilgrimage. It is his way of saying that this pilgrim journey, this home-coming, does not depend on our capacity to get to Rome. The physical distance is not what counts, because this is, first and foremost, a journey of the heart.
The Door of Mercy here at St. Mary’s Cathedral is a door that we do not normally use, and that helps to reinforce its spiritual significance. It will be open whenever the Cathedral is open. It is hoped that, in the course of the Jubilee Year, the Cathedral will become the focus of pilgrim visits by individuals and by parish groups and spiritual resources are being prepared for those who come.
Conversion and Reconciliation:
The theme of this Jubilee Year, which is inscribed on the Logo is “Merciful Like the Father”. It reminds us that mercy is not just God’s attitude towards us; it is also our attitude, as God’s people, towards one another. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall have mercy shown to them”. We can put this another way and say that God’s mercy towards us; his presence with us in all our struggles, is what inspires us to be present with and merciful towards those around us.
The people, in today’s Gospel, ask John the Baptist, “What must we do?” His answer refer to honesty and justice on the part of the tax-collectors and the soldiers. We might ask the same question, “What must we do?”, but the answer will have to refer to the circumstances of our own society.
In his letter introducing the Holy Year, Pope Francis gives us a few pointers.
- “In this Holy Year we look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes which modern society itself creates”. (Misericordiae Vultus 15)
- “Corruption prevents us from looking to the future with hope, because its tyrannical greed shatters the plans of the weak and tramples upon the poorest of the poor. It is an evil that embeds itself into the actions of everyday life and spreads, causing great public scandal. Corruption is a sinful hardening of the heart that replaces God with the illusion that money is a form of power. It is a work of darkness, fed by suspicion and intrigue.” (Misericordiae Vultus 19)
- “Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully.” (Misericordiae Vultus 9)
- We might also keep in mind the Pope’s suggestion that we familiarise ourselves with and begin to put into practice again what were traditional known as the Corporal Works of Mercy and the Spiritual Works of Mercy. (cf. (Misericordiae Vultus 15 and see below)
- Finally, it might be very topical, especially as world leaders meet in Paris, to remember the appeal of Pope Francis in his recent encyclical letter that we look after the earth, which is our common home and which we hold in trust for the generations coming after us. That too is a way of being “Merciful like the Father”. (cf Laudato Si 67)
Alongside the invitation to conversion of heart, there is the invitation to be reconciled with God and with one another. In some ways it is easier to be reconciled with God, because “the mercy of God endures forever”. It is part of who he is. It is his mercy that makes space for us to come in. This is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so central to the celebration of the Jubilee Year. If we have even begun to take on board the depth of God’s Mercy, which is made present to us especially in the person of Jesus Christ, then we cannot help but be aware of our need to be reconciled, because of the ways in which we fall short of the invitation to be “Merciful Like the Father”.
Pope Francis encourages us to “place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace.” (Misericordiae Vultus, 17). This is an appeal both to the priests and to the lay faithful and, while the Sacrament of Reconciliation is always available to us in the messiness of our lives, it will be a special focus of the pilgrimage to the Cathedral and the “coming in” through the Door of Mercy.
The Church’s Mission of Mercy
The Church’s mission of Mercy depends to some extent on the mission of the priests who, through their preaching and their availability for the ministry of reconciliation, will be visible signs of the Father’s mercy. It would be a mistake, however, to focus unduly on the priest or the institutional Church. Every Catholic person, man, woman and child, lives in a community which needs to be touched by mercy. Often it is the lay faithful who can carry the message of mercy to those who, for whatever reason, do not come to Mass, or find it hard to listen to the institutional Church. The success of this Jubilee of Mercy, in God’s grace, depends on each one of you also. To the extent that we are all engaged in the mission of mercy, we can all rejoice.
- Corporal Works of Mercy
The Corporal Works of Mercy are a series of practical actions, by means of which we reach out to those in need in the world around us. They include:
- feeding the hungry
- giving drink to the thirsty
- clothing the naked
- providing shelter to the homeless
- visiting the sick
- visiting those in prison
- burying the dead
- Spiritual Works of MercyThrough the Spiritual Works of Mercy we help our neighbours with their emotional and spiritual needs. These Spiritual Works of Mercy include:
- counselling the doubtful
- instructing the ignorant
- admonishing sinners
- comforting the afflicted
- forgiving offenses
- bearing wrongs patiently
- praying for the living and the dead