Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Joy of the Gospel

Reflection For 2nd Sunday of Advent
St. Vincent de Paul Parish
Austin, TX
December 7/8, 2013

          Brothers and Sisters in Christ, today on the 2nd Sunday of Advent we witness in the Gospel a confrontation. John the Baptist, surrounded by large numbers of people from all over Judea and the surrounding area of the Jordan, picks out the group of Pharisees and Sadducees come to be baptized like all the rest and decries them: “You brood of vipers!” (Matt 3:7). A warm salutation, is it not? This salutation and the following cordial dialogue fall toward the beginning of the Gospel of St. Matthew. This is important because St. Matthew, as Sacred Tradition holds, wrote his gospel in order to share the good news of salvation with the Jewish people. Indeed, Tradition suggests that Matthew originally wrote the gospel in Hebrew. Thus when the Pharisees and Sadducees (the religious factions of the time) show up for a debate, our interest is perked. There is something interesting going on here.

          In this episode, John the Baptist demands that they produce good fruit as evidence of their repentance, that they are sorry for their sins (Cf. Matt 3:8). Remember that John has made it clear that his baptism is one of repentance: “I am baptizing you with water for repentance,” he says (3:11). If the Pharisees and Sadducees are not repentant, John has nothing to offer them.

          Yet before the Pharisees or Sadducees can respond, John, knowing the murmurings of their hearts (as did Jesus), takes the words right out of their mouths: “do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father. For I say to you that God is able to raise sons of Abraham from these stones’” (3:9). What does this response mean?

          For the Jewish people, salvation consisted in being part of the family tree. Way back in Genesis, God made a covenant with Abraham promising him three things: land (i.e. the promise land), descendants as numberless as the stars in the sky and sand on the shore, and God’s blessing (Cf. Genesis 17). This began a great family tree. Abraham had Isaac. Isaac had Jacob (renamed Israel) who fathered 12 sons, the future heads of the 12 tribes of the nation Israel. This new family tree God held as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people to call His own” (1Peter 2:9). If you were a part of this family tree and you followed the laws and commands added by Moses (10 commandments and such), you were saved. As such, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have made recourse to their father Abraham as proof that they need not show signs of contrition or repentance. They saw themselves as part of the family tree, and they were content with that. And John the Baptist knew this.

          Yet he also knew that God was about to renew that old covenant in a radical way, changing the way this family tree worked: “Even now,” he says, “the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:10). Yes, God was to erect a new family tree through the coming Messiah such that all nations might become part of God’s people. Thus, John says: “I tell you, therefore, that God is able to raise sons of Abraham from these stones” (3:9). The stones represent the gentiles, all other people born outside of the chosen race.

          This should cause us to rejoice, for I would dare say that most if not all of us here are not descendants of Abraham. We are gentiles grafted on to the new family tree of God, the Cross, through the blood of Christ. Indeed, in these lines from John today we hear our very salvation. To make it more clear, had not Christ through His passion, death, and resurrection erected a new family tree in the Cross, grafting us onto that new tree through His most precious blood, we would not be, and could not have been redeemed. Rejoice, for we are now those sons of Abraham; we are now offshoots of that family tree by faith given to us through a baptism of fire and the spirit (Cf. Matt. 3:11).

          John treats the Pharisees and Sadducees harshly because they are content with their own inclusion in this family tree. They are turned inwards, content to worry only about themselves and those already apart of this family. To put it bluntly, they have no concern for what truly saves, that is, faith.

          Indeed, the Pharisees and Sadducees are unaware that, as St. Paul teaches, what justified Abraham in the sight of the Lord was faith. He trusted in the Lord, believing that what was promised him would be fulfilled, and it was accredited to him as righteousness (Cf. Gal 3:6). Now through Jesus Christ all peoples are justified by faith in Him. For not by works of the law and obedience to the commandments of the old covenant are we justified, but by faith in Christ Jesus. It is here in this movement from flesh to faith[1] that a mission or an evangelization begins. It is no longer enough to be content with our own inclusion in God’s family tree. No, now we are to go out and, as Jesus will say at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).  

          Recently the intervention given by Pope Francis during the pre-conclave conferences was published. In it Pope Francis warned against a “self-referential Church”[2]:

When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick. (cf. The deformed woman of the Gospel).”[3]

Consider how John the Baptist’s confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees might provide an image for us of Pope Francis’ insight here. The Pharisees and Sadducees understood themselves to be a part of a self-referential Church, a Church content with herself and those within her bounds. Such a Pharisaical Church consumes herself with the activities and works of piety done for the salvation of its members, not looking beyond itself or desiring to share such a reality with others. It is precisely here that things begin to rot and to die from the inside, becoming hollow and meaningless. The very joy of sharing the Gospel, the very life blood of the Church, is gone. Indeed, Jesus lays this very critique against the Pharisee and Scribes in Matthews Gospel, saying:

Woe to you…You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men's bones and every kind of filth.” (23:27).

This teaching of our Holy Father is clear enough, but it is not new. Soon to be Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio said pointedly that “the Church is missionary by her very nature.[4] The Church cannot, will not, is not herself unless she lives out her truest identity that of proclaiming the saving message of Jesus Christ to all peoples. We could go back further here to the Second Vatican Council.[5] But that must remain for another time and place.

What, then, does this mean for us here at the parish? How can we evaluate ourselves and challenge ourselves to live out this missionary identity of the Church here and now? How can we avoid a Pharisaical Church and become true disciples of the Lord Jesus going out to share the joy of the Gospel?

          For us personally, when we think of holiness, do we equate holiness with the number of activities at the parish we participate in? As leaders, do we equate the fruitfulness and success of our groups by their size or level of attendance? The various groups and ministries in a parish are important, even essential to the life of the Church. Please be involved and participate in them. Start new ones, and renew ones already established. Again, they are essential to the life of the Church. Yet, we must be honest with ourselves and hear the challenge of our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, and imagine holiness as the joy with which we live the Gospel. We must consider our endeavors as fruitful and successful by how deeply we have shared the joy of the Gospel with other souls? It’s all about saving souls! We cannot be afraid of saying that. We must have “zeal for souls” as Pope Benedict XVI said.[6] The missionary activity of the Church both home and abroad sharing the joy of the Gospel for the salvation of souls, this is the essence of the Church. And everything we do must be seen in this light.

          How, then, do we do this? How can each and every one of us live out this missionary zeal that Pope Francis is pumping into the Church? First and foremost we must live faithful lives of prayer and participate in the sacraments. This is the source and summit of our faith without which we will never truly live in the first place. At the font of prayer, we will receive the grace, the joy of the Gospel which we are to share. We must receive the Gospel in order to share it. Secondly, we must carry out faithfully our various states in life. Consider the witness of a good and faith filled family! We all know in this day and age what a testimony a faithful couple open to life can be! Even more, if you are single and simply live a chaste and virtuous life, what a sign you will be! Young people who are considering a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, what a witness you are just by being open to the voice of God! Thirdly and lastly, we must do all things with an eye to sharing the joy of the Gospel. We must anticipate that at any given moment we will be called on to share our joy. And we must take them, seize them: at meetings and at the water cooler; in locker rooms and stadium seating; in classroom discussions and hallway chitchat; in the checkout line and the traffic jam; at the mall and attending movies; in the barber’s chair and picking up dry cleaning. We must share the joy of the Gospel in the streets and byways. Let us not be robbed of the joy of the Gospel.[7] 



[1] Cf. St. John Chrysostom’s Homily 11 on the Gospel of Matthew: “Do you see how for the time he drew them off from their vain imagination about things of the body, and from their refuge in their forefathers; in order that they might rest the hope of their salvation in their own repentance and continence? Do you see how by casting out their carnal relationship, he is bringing in that which is of faith?”
[2] Cf. Cardinal Bergolio’s  intervention during the pre-conclave conferences:  http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/03/27/bergoglios_intervention:_a_diagnosis_of_the_problems_in_the_church/en1-677269 
[3] Ibid
[4] Number 5: “this definitive self-revelation of God [the coming of His Son our Lord Jesus Christ] is the fundamental reason why the Church is missionary by her very nature.”
[5] The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, defines the Church as “the universal sacrament of salvation” (n. 48).
[6] Homily from Chrism Mass on April 5th, 2012: The last keyword that I should like to consider is “zeal for souls”: animarum zelus. It is an old-fashioned expression, not much used these days. In some circles, the word “soul” is virtually banned because – ostensibly – it expresses a body-soul dualism that wrongly compartmentalizes the human being. Of course the human person is a unity, destined for eternity as body and soul. And yet that cannot mean that we no longer have a soul, a constituent principle guaranteeing our unity in this life and beyond earthly death. And as priests, of course, we are concerned for the whole person, including his or her physical needs – we care for the hungry, the sick, the homeless. And yet we are concerned not only with the body, but also with the needs of the soul: with those who suffer from the violation of their rights or from destroyed love, with those unable to perceive the truth, those who suffer for lack of truth and love. We are concerned with the salvation of men and women in body and soul. And as priests of Jesus Christ we carry out our task with enthusiasm.”
[7] Cf. Evangelii Gaudium

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