The Third Sunday of Advent [A]
Isa 35:1-6, 10 + Jas 5:7-10 + Mt 11:2-11
December 11, 2016
“Take as an example of hardship and patience, brethren, the prophets who spoke….”
“Hardship and patience” don’t come easily to most of us. Still, at least patience we can see the value of more easily than the value of hardship. We know from daily experience how much we need the virtue of patience in order to get along in this world (not to mention in order to have a shot at Heaven!). As we grow up, we need patience with our brothers, and with our sisters. Within one’s family, parents need patience with their children, and children with their parents. Employees need patience with their bosses, and bosses with their employees.
We even need to have patience with God! Does that sound strange? We do need to have patience with God. As disciples of the Lord Jesus, who leads us in all things to “Our Father”, you and I need patience with God. Of course, the reason for needing patience with God is very different than why we need patience with our children, parents, boss, and so on. For the most part, we need patience with our brothers and sisters because of their imperfections, faults, and sins. But with God we need patience for different reasons. We need patience with God because His time is not our time. God looks at us and our lives from the perspective of eternity, while we like children look only at the current “now”. We need patience with God because God is a farmer, while for our part, we too often want only to reap what we have not sowed. And so patience is one of the key virtues of Advent, and we beg God for an increase in the virtue of patience, with both God and neighbor (again, though, for different reasons).
But on the other hand, do we really need hardship, or is hardship just something that has to be tolerated? Is hardship actually of value, or should we instead cultivate a soft, comfortable, easy, restful life? Saint John the Baptist says that hardship is necessary. In fact, hardship is of great value. Saint Paul says likewise, and both saints point our attention to Jesus, who shows us over and over again that hardship is a precious means by which to draw closer to God the Father, and to allow Him to embrace us as a father embraces his little child.
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“Penance” is another word for “hardship”, but the word “penance” gets a bad rap. For some, the word “penance” suggests only the Sacrament of Penance, with all of the examination of conscience, confession, and amendment of life that are part and parcel of that sacrament. For others, the word “penance” suggests a medieval monastery, where monks use whips and cords, a diet of hard bread and cold soup, and allow themselves very little sleep in order to tell God, year after year, tear after tear, how sorry they are for being such miserable wretches. Unfortunately, caricatures of “penance” such as that medieval monastery lead some Christians to the opposite extreme, where the grace of Christ, which has already won the victory over human sin, leads them to reject penance as having any place within the spiritual life.
The Catholic Church, however, not only teaches her children to practice some penance every Friday in honor of that Good Friday when Jesus carried His Cross and died on it for us. The Church not only offers the Sacrament of Penance every week of the year so that sins, both large and small, mortal and venial, can be washed away by the Blood of Christ. No, the Church goes further in sowing the seeds of penance in our spiritual lives. The Church each year sets aside two seasons as seasons of penance. Advent and Lent are seasons of preparation, and penance is one of the tools with which to prepare for the great celebrations of Christmas and Easter.
Nonetheless, although Advent and Lent are similar in many ways, they focus our hearts and minds in somewhat different ways. Lent will come again in a few months, and during Lent we can reflect on how Lent is unique in calling Christians to penance. But Advent’s unique “take” on penance has its origin in the experience of new life: new life, of course, being what lies at the heart of the Christmas mystery. Those of you who are mothers can recall all the sacrifices involved in bearing new life, and bringing it into the world. New life and sacrifice are part and parcel of each other. You can’t have one without the other. But you will still find some Christians who insist that new life in the spiritual life is different: they insist that because grace is free, that it demands no sacrifice of the one to whom it’s given. As Catholics, though, we know better, because the Church leads us in the practices of penance throughout the year, but especially during Advent and Lent.
Along with poverty and silence, penance helps us prepare to celebrate Christmas in a deeply spiritual manner. If you’d like an image to reflect on throughout this third week of Advent, picture our Blessed Mother at the Annunciation, during the journey to Bethlehem, and in the stable after Jesus’ birth. Reflect on the poverty, silence, and sacrifice of our Blessed Mother, and give thanks that through the grace of her Son, you and I can draw closer to God the Father.