Today is the Sunday of Rejoicing, Gaudete Sunday--the great feast of Christmas is around the corner and the Final Coming of Our Savior Jesus Christ is ever closer. The readings are all about glad tidings, rejoicing heartily in the Lord, about spirits rejoicing in God my savior and about exhortations to “Rejoice always” and, finally, in the midst of our winter darkness, today's Gospel speaks about John's testifying to the light. Well, we can all testify to a lot of darkness right now: darkness on our country's political horizons (it is hard to believe what is going on around us and in the courts) and the darkness and uncertainty we face in the Covid-19 pandemic (when will this horror end?)-the threat of death from the disease is coupled with the threat of economic ruin for millions of American workers and people the world over. I am often tempted to pray to God, “Dear Lord, when I wake up tomorrow, please make it be 2022!”
This week Pope Francis has, in a sense, in declaring the year to be dedicated to St. Joseph, told us to Ite ad Joseph--Go to Joseph—Joseph who can remain a just and compassionate man even after finding out his wife is pregnant with someone else's child, Joseph who can trust Mary with her fantastic tale of an angelic annunciation, Joseph the courageous husband and foster father who can drop all his own life's plans and flee to Egypt across the terrible wilderness to save his son from a murderous ruler, Joseph who can trust God about leaving the safety of Egypt and bring his family back to Israel after the death of Herod. In these dark times men of remarkable faith such as John the Baptist and Joseph can be witnesses to us of how to rejoice instead of despairing. The answer is, of course, to remain centered on Christ Jesus our Lord and Mary, His and our Mother. John the Baptist, who in today's gospel pericope witnesses to the true Light, in a later chapter of the Fourth Gospel, witnesses to his insight into joy about that Light: he says, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens to him rejoices greatly as he hears the bridegroom's voice. So, this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.” It is John's closeness to Jesus that brings him joy, nothing else. It is what Jesus can accomplish, not what he can accomplish. In John's allusion to the “bride,” we Cistercians can think readily of Mary our Mother, the bride of the Canticle in many traditional interpretations of the Song of Songs from medieval times.
The year which began on 8 December and ends on 8 December 2021, has been dedicated, as I said, by Pope Francis to Saint Joseph, the Patron of the Universal Church. Joseph, like John the Baptist, centered his life on his foster son, Jesus, and his son's Mother Mary, Joseph's own Bride. Two passages in the Apostolic Letter announcing the Year of Saint Joseph moved me as being so relevant to my, our monastic vocation here in Saint Joseph's Abbey. In the preface, the Pope writes, “Each of us can discover in Joseph—the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence—an intercessor, support and guide in times of trouble. St. Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.” I thought here of the hidden but very apostolic prayer of our Order, our monastery, of each one of us, for the Church and the world. I thought of the love similar to Joseph's that we are called to radiate, hidden as we are, in the heart of the Church—hidden as he was in the heart of the Holy Family. The other passage is the fifth section that has the heading “A Creatively Courageous Father.” Here I was astounded by the Pope's insight that (quote) “We should always consider whether we ourselves are protecting Jesus and Mary, for they are also mysteriously entrusted to our own responsibility, care and safekeeping.” What did he say!! How is that?
Francis explains: “Saint Joseph could not be other than the Guardian of the Church, for the Church is the continuation of the Body of Christ in history, even as Mary's motherhood is reflected in the motherhood of the Church. In his continued protection for the Church, Joseph continues to protect the Child and his Mother, and we too, by our love for the Church, continue to love the Child and his Mother...We must learn to love the child and his mother, to love the sacraments and charity, to love the Church and the poor. Each of these is always the child and his mother.” Into this celebration and reception of the Eucharist we should lovingly bring this concern of Saint Joseph to love the child and his mother, to unite ourselves with the poor (that is, the needy, the suffering or dying person, every stranger, every prisoner, every infirm person), with the suffering Church, with all oppressed people in their struggle for a better life, with those seeking to find God and with those who seek to hide from God.
Buried in the footnotes of the Apostolic Letter is a prayer Pope Francis prays every morning. I see it as a perfect prayer for our troubled political and plague-ridden times. It expresses our longing to rejoice in a happy outcome to what we face today. He says that it expresses devotion and trust, and even poses a certain challenge to St. Joseph: “Glorious Patriarch Saint Joseph, whose power makes the impossible possible, come to our aid in these times of anguish and difficulty. Take under your protection the serious and troubling situations that we commend to you, that they may have a happy outcome. Our beloved father, all our trust is in you. Let it not be said that we invoked you in vain, and since you can do everything with Jesus and Mary, show us that your goodness is as great as your power. Amen.”
Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Father Luke's homily for this Third Sunday of Advent.