18 December 2016

Homily - 18 December 2016 - The Fourth Sunday of Advent: There is still time to be still

The Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The Apostle Saint Paul expresses today the purpose for which he so profoundly spent himself for the proclamation of the Gospel, namely, “to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:5-6). With our emphasis today on personal liberty and choice, we do not like to hear about the notion of obedience. We think of obedience as something belonging to a former age, a day in which men and women were hindered from fulfilling their dreams, but is this really the case?

If we break the word “obedience” apart, we find it comes from two Latin words, ob audire, which mean, when placed together, “to listen towards.” True obedience, then, is not simply following an order or a command unquestioningly, but rather listening so intently to the other person - with the intention of discovering his or her heart and deepest needs and wishes - in such a way that his or her desires become my own. More than being about submission, obedience, properly understood, is listening to another person with the heart, of knowing the other so well that I anticipate his or desires and needs. “This,” then, “is true Christian obedience, which is freedom: not [to do] as I want, with my own plan of life for myself, but in putting myself at [God’s] disposal so that he will make use of me. And in placing myself in his hands I am free.”[1] We might say that “Christian freedom, therefore, is completely different from arbitrariness; it is following Christ in the gift of self, right up to the sacrifice on the cross.”[2]

If actively listening to another person is the goal of authentic obedience, what does Saint Paul mean when he speaks of “the obedience of faith?” The obedience of faith is an intentional act by which “man completely submits his intellect and his will to God,” by which we “submit freely to the word that has been heard because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself.”[3] The word that we hear, the word toward which we listen, is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who communicates his merciful love to us through the Sacraments, which he entrusted to his Church, founded upon the Apostle Saint Peter, and through the Sacred Scriptures, which the same Church devotedly preserves and venerates as the inspired word of God. By the act of faith, the disciple of Jesus strives to listen to what he says about every aspect of life, from choosing a spouse to raising children, from working honestly to spending money wisely, from using my own body properly to honoring the dignity of others, and everything in between; no facet of life remains untouched from his word. By the act of faith, the disciple of Jesus listens to what he says about every aspect of life and acts upon that word with the confidence that it comes from him who cannot deceive and who cannot be deceived. By the act of faith, the Christian becomes the friend of God by keeping his commands because the one who speaks is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (cf. John 15:14; 14:6). This obedience of faith is “the unconditional acceptance of a servant, and the loving commitment of a child.”[4]  Both of these we see modeled in Saint Joseph.

This listening to the Word of God, as Joseph clearly did, is not merely a passive activity; it requires our own desire to grow in union with the Lord. Moreover, it requires a “close communion with the one who calls us to be his friends and disciples, a unity of life and action nourished by listening to his Word, by contemplation and by prayer, by detachment from the mindset of the world and by ceaseless conversion to his love so that it may be he, Christ, who lives and works in each one of us.”[5] It requires that we spend time in silence in the presence of the Lord, that we still our hearts, open our minds, and close our lips before him to be able to discern his “still small voice” speaking within the depths of our hearts (I Kings 19:11). We have no better example of this respectful and loving silence in the presence of God than Saint Joseph, who speaks not a single word in the Scriptures, yet who supports Mary and Jesus through his devotion.

This season of Advent, this period of watching and waiting, is one of joyful expectation, a blessed and holy time intended for a deep and profound silence in imitation of Saint Joseph, whose role is too often passed over in our thoughts. Let us, then, turn for a moment toward this holy man, “who lived with unique intensity the period of expectation and preparation for Jesus’ birth.”[6] If we look to him, we will learn how to prepare ourselves for the joyful celebration of Christmas.

When the angel of the Lord said to him, “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home,” Joseph offered neither objection nor question (Matthew 1:20). He welcomed the mission entrusted to him as his duty and privilege: “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). It is Joseph’s silence in the presence of the mystery of the Incarnation, his silent listening to the word of God, that particularly strikes us in our own age of almost constant noise.

Too often silence is seen today as a sign of confusion, of weakness or loss, but this is not the case with Saint Joseph. His “silence does not express an inner emptiness but, on the contrary, the fullness of the faith he bears in his heart and which guides his every thought and action.”[7] His silence is a sign of his knowledge, of his strength, and of the gift he has received. “It is a silence thanks to which Joseph, in union with Mary, listens to the Word of God, known through the Sacred Scriptures, continuously comparing it with the events of the life of Jesus; a silence woven of constant prayer, a prayer of blessing the Lord, of the adoration of his holy will and of unreserved entrustment to his providence.”[8] It is a silence born of awe and wonder, and one we would do well to imitate because, as Pope Francis reminds us, “where love is concerned, silence is always more eloquent than words.”[9]

Indeed, before so great a mystery as the birth of the only Son of God, of God made man, what else is there to do but to fall to the knees in humble, grateful, loving, and silent adoration? What words could possibly be uttered in the presence of the Divine Child? For this reason that ancient and beloved hymn sings,

Let all mortal flesh keep silence
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth
our full homage to demand.

This is the mindset of the one who, with Saint Joseph, awaits the birth of the Christ Child in silent wonder.

There is still time to still our hearts and keep silence so that we might hear the voice of Love speaking tenderly to us. In these last few days, then, before the birth of the Messiah, let us allow ourselves to be filled with Saint Joseph’s silence to listen to the will of the Lord for our lives and to make his will our own. Then, as we approach the manger of Bethlehem to adore the newborn King, we will be able to give him the best gift, the obedience of faith, to profoundly spend ourselves in his service, and so live in true freedom as heralds of his merciful love. Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Clergy of Rome, 7 February 2008.
[2] Ibid., Angelus Address, 1 July 2007.
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 143-144.
[4] Ibid., 2716.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., 10 January 2008.
[6] Ibid., Angelus Address, 18 December 2005.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Pope Francis, Amoris laetitia, 12.

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