Year C – 3rd Sunday in Advent

On Great Balls of Fire

[Zeph.3:14-18; Phil.4:4-7; Lk.3:1-18]

Today is the third Sunday of Advent and Gaudete Sunday.  Pope Francis calls this ‘the Sunday of Joy’.  Why? It’s because Gaudete means ‘rejoice’. 

We rejoice because we’re halfway through Advent and Jesus is on his way.  We rejoice because God is in our lives and a holy fire is burning in our hearts. 

That’s what the prophet Zephaniah’s saying in our first reading, when he tells us to ‘shout for joy and exult with all your heart, for the Lord your God is in your midst’.

To emphasise our joy, we wear rose-coloured vestments today.  This comes from Isaiah who said ‘the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose’ (Is.35:1-6,10). [i]

One important element of joy is laughter.  The French writer Nicholas Chamfort said that the most wasted of days is one without laughter.  When you laugh, your brain produces natural chemicals that lift your mood and relieve your pain and suffering.  It can transform your emotions, cure illnesses and change the way you see the world.

St Philip Neri (1515-95) knew that laughter is good medicine, and that’s why he’s the patron saint of joy.  He spent most of his life in Rome and was ordained a priest at 35.  He used to encourage people’s faith in unusual ways, including by making them laugh.

He once sent a friend to get a bottle of wine, and insisted that he sample every wine in the shop before buying it.  Sometimes St Philip shaved off half his beard and did funny dances to make people laugh.  And sometimes he set penances for young men that required them to make fools of themselves in public.

Why did he do this?  It’s said that he needed these jokes more badly than anyone else, because his love for God was so intense.  He sometimes needed laughter to distract him and help him focus on what he had to do.

But joy isn’t just laughter.  Pope Francis says that Christians breathe joy, but joy doesn’t mean living from laugh to laugh.  It’s much deeper than that.

Joy isn’t just laughter. It’s much deeper than that.

‘Joy isn’t entertainment,’ he says.  Rather, ‘Christian joy is peace, peace that’s deeply rooted… in the heart, the peace that only God can give.’

But fostering Christian joy isn’t easy.  Pope Francis says that Christians must remember what God has done for us, and in that remembering be rejuvenated.  In today’s culture, he says, people often seem to be satisfied by mere fragments of pleasure, but that pleasure isn’t truly satisfying or lasting. It leaves people restless and uneasy. [ii]

CS Lewis wrote that true joy is the ache we feel in our hearts for something beyond this world.  It’s not a satisfied desire but an unsatisfied desire; a deep longing for God, a hungry pursuit of God’s heart that never ends.  And the Holy Spirit uses this restlessness to awaken our spiritual hunger.  

Lewis said that when little moments of life… like the way the light falls on a summer evening… stir you with a deep longing that’s hard to define, don’t look to earthly pursuits to fill the void.  Instead, allow the ache to push you deeper into your relationship with God. Pursue him. Allow that longing for him to become the hottest fire in your heart. [iii]

This is the joy we all long for; the joy that fills us with unimaginable love not only for God himself, but for all his creation, including those around us.

St Philip Neri was often said to have had a heart of fire.  But these weren’t mere words, for people noticed that he was always warm and often flushed.  He often walked about with his cassock unbuttoned at his chest, even in winter.  When he preached or prayed his heart used to beat violently, and some people could hear his heart beating across the room.  No-one knew why, until he was on his deathbed. [iv]

That’s when Philip revealed that on Pentecost Eve in 1544, he’d been praying that God would give him the Holy Spirit.  Then he saw the Spirit approach him as a ball of fire.  It entered his mouth and went straight to his heart, doubling its size and knocking him off his feet.  At his autopsy they found that two of his ribs had been broken and had formed an arch over his enlarged heart. [v]

As St Paul says, when we welcome God into our lives, he opens our eyes to his grace and power and he fills us with joy (Rom.15:13).  


[i] Carol Reynolds, Journey through Advent.  Silver Age Music, Bowie Texas. 2015:58.





Year C – 2nd Sunday in Advent

On Waiting in Ice and Heat

[Bar.5:1-9; Phil.1:4-6, 8-11; Lk.3:1-6]

Today’s the second Sunday of Advent, and we’re reminded that it’s time to prepare because Jesus is coming.

Let me tell you a story.

In 1914, the explorer Ernest Shackleton sailed from London on the ship Endurance with 27 men.  He planned to be the first man to cross Antarctica.

But as he and his men approached the frozen continent they were trapped by pack ice.  Ten months later the ice crushed their ship and they had to abandon her.

Taking three lifeboats, they started walking. Six months later they arrived on Elephant Island.  When the ice started breaking up, Shackleton decided to take a chance and get help.  He promised to return, and with five men he sailed 1300 km in a lifeboat to South Georgia.

At the whaling station there he borrowed a boat and tried to return to his men, but the ice stopped him.  He wouldn’t give up, however, because of his promise, and tried another three times.  On his fourth attempt, as he approached Elephant Island the ice briefly opened up.  He took a risk, dashed in and collected his men.  He was in and out of the island in an hour.

As they sailed to safety, Shackleton said to one of them, ‘Well, you were packed and ready, weren’t you?’ 

We never lost hope – we believed you’d come for us.

The man replied, ‘Yes, we never lost hope.  We believed you’d come for us, even though it seemed unlikely.  You’d promised, and we expected you.  Each morning we rolled up our sleeping bags and packed all our equipment, so that we’d be ready’. 

They knew Shackleton would return for them, so they made sure they were ready.  They’d waited for him for 105 days and all were saved.

In our Gospel today, John the Baptist emerges from the desert and tells everyone to get ready, because the Messiah is coming.  He says ‘prepare the way of the Lord, for he is near’.

Now, Jesus is the Messiah, and we know he’s coming.  Not just at Christmas, not just at the end of time, and not just at the end of our lives. 

Jesus wants to come into our hearts right now.  But are we ready for him?

As St Charles Borromeo once put it, Jesus is ready to come again spiritually at any moment.

As Christians, Advent is the time of year when we’re called to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ return.  We know he’s coming for us.  In John 14:1-6, Jesus says: ‘Trust in God still, and trust in me. … I’m now going to prepare a place for you, and after I’ve gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me; So that where I am you may be, too.’

But will we be ready and waiting for him, like Shackleton’s men?

Even Jesus has his doubts.  In Luke 18:8, he asks, ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Yes, what will Jesus find when he comes this Christmas? 

I think he’ll find that Santa and shopping are more important than sainthood.  He’ll find that food and fun are more important than faith.  He’ll find that the hollow words ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ are more popular than the Word of God.  And he’ll find that many adults have abandoned Christmas to their children.

What would Shackleton have thought if his men had not been ready for him?

In our second reading today, St Paul tells the Philippians that he prays that they might learn to value the things that really matter, and that they might come to love each other, just as Jesus loves them.

The season of Advent is a free gift to each of us.  It’s an invitation to take time out, to reflect on the truth of Jesus Christ: his birth and his life, and what that means for us personally.

In the ice of Shackleton’s Antarctica and in the heat of St John the Baptist’s desert, there are few comforts and few distractions.  The truth is plain to see.

Shackleton’s men knew they had to get ready for his return, and they did.  John the Baptist knew the Messiah was coming, and he warned everyone to get ready.

At the typical Australian Christmas, there’s both ice and heat.  When you see the ice think of Shackleton.  When you feel the heat, think of John the Baptist in the desert.

But whatever you do, make sure you’re ready for Jesus’ return.

For Jesus is coming.

Year C – 1st Sunday in Advent

On the Paradox of Advent

[Jer.33:14-16; Thess.3:12-4:2; Lk.21:25-28,34-36]

Jesus has many names.  He’s the Dayspring (Mal.4:2; Lk.1:78), the dawn of God’s kingdom and light of the world who banishes the darkness.

He’s the Key of David (Is.22:22) who rescues us from hell and unlocks the door of heaven.

He’s the Rod of Jesse (Is.11:1), who springs from a dead stump and frees his people from slavery to sin. 

And he’s Emmanuel (Is.7:14). In Hebrew, ‘immanu’ means ‘with us’ and ‘El’ means God.  So, together Emmanuel means ‘God with us’.

Today marks the beginning of a new liturgical Year C, and a fresh season of Advent.  Advent, of course, is all about preparing our hearts and minds to receive Jesus at Christmas.

Every year at this time we sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’.  The English hymn as we know it today dates from the 1850s, but the words are ancient, dating back to 8th Century Gregorian chant.  The tune is from the 15th Century. 

In the original Latin, this hymn had seven verses, each focussing on one of the Old Testament names for Jesus, like the Dayspring, the Key of David and Rod of Jesse.  Together, they summarise the Bible’s prophecies about the coming of Jesus as the Messiah and his work among us.  They tell us how Jesus ransoms us from our captivity to sin and death, and sets us free. [i]

Each year, in the week before Christmas, Benedictine monks used to sing or chant one verse each day to prepare their hearts and minds for Christ’s coming.

One interesting detail in the Latin hymn is that the first letter of each name for Jesus (Sapientia, Adonai, Radix Jesse, Clavis David, Oriens, Rex Gentiem, and Emmanuel) spells SARCORE.  Backwards, this acronym reads ‘Ero Cras’, which means ‘Tomorrow I come’. [ii] 

That’s our focus in Advent: the coming of Jesus Christ. 

There are three comings of Christ. The third is invisible.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a French abbot and Doctor of the Church.  He said that there are three comings of Jesus Christ. [iii]  The third coming, he said, is invisible and lies between the other two, which are visible.

Jesus’ first coming is his birth in Bethlehem.  It’s visible and it’s what we celebrate at Christmas.  But Jesus did so much more than arrive as a baby.  He also died for us on the Cross and rose again to new life.  So we also celebrate him as the Son of God who sacrificed everything to demonstrate his love for us and to show us how to join him in heaven.

Jesus’ second coming is also visible.  It will be at the end of our lives and at the end of all time.  That’s when Jesus will come in his glory and we’ll finally see him face-to-face (2Thess.1:6-7).

And in between is his third coming.  It’s invisible.  It’s the hidden appearance of Jesus that’s already happening right now, but only some of us can see him.  Where do we see him?   We see him in the Word, in the Holy Eucharist, in the Church, in our neighbours and in our personal lives.

But why can’t some of us see him?  It’s because we haven’t opened our eyes, our minds and our hearts to his presence among us.

St Bernard said that because Jesus’ third coming lies between the other two, it’s like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last.  In the first coming, Christ was our redemption.  In the last coming, he’ll appear as our eternal life.  And in between he’s our rest and consolation.

In his first coming, Jesus arrived in our human flesh and in our weakness.  In the middle he comes in spirit and in power.  And in his final coming we’ll see him in all his glory and majesty.

St Peter predicted that some people would ridicule the idea of Jesus coming again.  He was right; many people do just that.  But don’t forget, he says, ‘that the Lord’s patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’  So he gives us time to prepare ourselves.  But the day of the Lord will come ‘like a thief’, Peter says, when we least expect it (2Pet.3:3-10).

So, whenever we sing ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, we’re not just celebrating the birth of Jesus, our Saviour.  We’re also preparing our hearts for his return, both in this life and in the next.

For at the very heart of Advent is this paradoxical mystery: 

Jesus was … is … and is still to come.