At a time that stood in the shadow of notorious papal scandal and other church corruption, a time of great distrust of the church, a saint came along to who would change some of this. This man had a great desire to counter these feelings of suspicion and a lack of trust, and replace them with a love of the Lord. If you were walking around Rome in the 16th century you might have spied him, perhaps standing in a piazza or on a street corner. He might stand out because he was frequently seen wearing absolutely ridiculous clothing and sometimes with half of his beard shaved off. What a sight! It was in this way that St. Philip Neri helped to change the course of church history, and bring many souls to know Christ.
While Neri is known for his extraordinary evangelizing, it was this offbeat approach that helped change lives. By joyfully using his extraordinary sense of humor, St. Philip left a huge imprint upon the church and the world. All this was accomplished by engaging others in conversation. These conversations might start with distrust or simply mere curiosity. Then they would eventually turn to laughter, which would become moments of conversion for many.
Introducing others to Christ came naturally to Neri, and in the most joyful way. In fact he once remarked that, “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.”
Joy is our theme today, the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday. The word Gaudete comes from Latin and it means rejoice. It is in our rejoicing that our hearts are made more perfect as we prepare a place to welcome Jesus, our Emmanuel.
But wait, we are to prepare a place? What place? And we are to prepare a place with joy? What joy? In our culture, the broader call of these weeks is to prepare for Christmas. You know, by spinning ourselves dizzy with cards, cooking, baking, shopping, socializing and more. However, this day is a marker on the Advent path that directs us to the heart of our joy, reminding us to keep the focus on the Lord.
Each year I vow to practice a quieter and calmer Advent. Honestly, I like to think that I will do such a thing, but I rarely achieve it. This Advent has me busy, but I have attempted to trim some of my activities, resulting in the creation of a bit of needed space. This is a mirror of our liturgical season, so that a place for the newborn Lord might be prepared in my heart. That tiny space is like a manger in my heart. It’s not the best spot, but it will do.
If we can keep our preparation focused on our hearts, rather than on our tasks, and we can also be focused on joy, we might be able access new places. Now the birth of Christ might be anticipated with the silent, patient, hopeful waiting of this season. This is joy to be had now, not postponed. Joy that is only increased as the child is born. This is the joy that helps bring our hearts to perfection.
Yet, in the midst of this, I am aware that it is dangerously easy to make religious practice into a dry and somber act, one that is certainly not joyful. How can we prepare this barren place for new life with joy?
Joyfulness is the core of the words of the prophet Zephaniah in the first reading, which tells us to shout for joy, sing joyfully. We hear the message to “be glad and exult.” We are also told not to be discouraged. We should not be discouraged because God is in our midst. God is in our midst, a mighty savior who wants to rejoice over us in gladness; God in our midst having removed all judgment against us. Suddenly I imagine St. Philip, with half a beard and funny clothes, telling people about the promise of Christ in their midst!
In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul repeats the same message – rejoice! As if he understood that we might be skeptical, or outright disbelieving, and as if he knew that we would lack joy, he repeats himself, “I shall say it again: rejoice!”
What don’t we understand about this? The Lord is near, and the Lord offers of the peace that is beyond our understanding. This is what is available to us through Christ – a kind of joy not known before. “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.” St. Philip reinterprets St. Paul who said it first, using different words.
Why then, is this so hard to integrate into our lives? I ask myself this question! Although I make my way, I stumble. I am trying to muster some joy and gratitude, some hope and some recognition of the God that is already in my midst. That God is healing, forgiving, loving, reconciling and is right here, right now.
I don’t know about you, but here we are, less than two weeks before Christmas, and despite all of my words, I’m not there yet. Just what do I find in my midst? I find anxiety over shopping, money, unfinished work on my desk, and not being good enough for God. Yet it is God who is in my midst, who is in our midst – bringing us that joy in great abundance. We are not asked to manufacture joy, we are asked to respond to it in kind.
So now what? That all sounds well and good, but what should I do? This is the question at the heart of Luke’s Gospel for today, “What then should we do?” John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord, is drawing attention to himself by baptizing and preaching. Unlike St. Philip who often used levity, John the Baptist is very serious. Make no mistake however; they have more than a few things in common.
People want something, but they do not know what to do, so they ask him. John minces no words. Give more. You have two tunics? Good, give one to someone else! If you have anything, share it. Even the despised tax collectors want to know what to do, and John is as clear with them; do not take more than you are supposed to take. Sounds easy enough, but that went against the standard of the time. Of course, we must stop to consider this; John is addressing us as well. Can we do this?
And how is this joyful? It is if we stop confusing joy with happiness, and begin to understand the state of our hearts when they encounter Jesus. When we encounter and stay with Christ, we find the heart of joy. We come to discover that God is in our midst, and we are forgiven. This God in our midst, this God-with-us, has given deep peace. This God, our Emmanuel, has come to save us in the form of the Christ child. That is at the heart of our joy.
Perhaps then, out of that heart of joy, we can find the ability to both prepare a place for the Lord and also to give what we have away. We can do this because of one joyful fact; the more we come to know Christ and give everything away, the more He comes to live in our hearts. Now that is cause for rejoicing! And it is in that rejoicing in Christ that our hearts, perhaps not joyful at first, might be turned to Him.
This was first published in 2012 as part of the Homilists for the Homeless project in the book, Hungry, And You Fed Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C, by Clear Faith Publishing. To date, in excess of $100,000 has been donated to various charities as a result of the sales of these books. As an original contributor, and as someone actively involved with this project, I remain humbled to be a part of it all.
Please visit our website. In addition to that charitable project, we also offer other books and items, such as works by liturgical composer David Haas, and prolific author and priest, Fr. Bill Bausch, among others. Also featured are calendars, cards, and a book by Bro. Mickey McGrath OSFS. Proceeds from these books benefit the ministers and their various ministries. Please like and follow us on Facebook if you have not done so already. Local Albany people can also find the book at O’Connor’s Church Goods in Latham.