December 12, 2010
Last Monday, I had my angioplasty. In the operating room, the surgeon greeted me, “Hello, Father. I am Dr. Reimers. Are you happy to be here?” Obviously, he was trying to be funny to make me feel at ease. Who would be happy in the operating room? He was surprised when I quickly replied, “Yes.” He laughed. He thought I was joking. But I was not. I was happy, knowing that something is being done to address my health condition. As it turned out, one artery in my heart was 70% blocked, and a stent was implanted right away to keep it open. Had I waited longer, something worse would have happened. St. Augustine wrote: “Even here, amidst trials and temptations, let us, all men, sing alleluia. Scripture does not say that he will not allow you to be tried, but that he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength. Whatever the trial, he will see you through it safely, and so enable you to endure.”
Even in times of trials and difficulties, we still have reasons to rejoice in the Lord. The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete” Sunday. “Gaudete” means, “rejoice”, echoing St. Paul’s call to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.”
In the face of so much sufferings and calamities in the world, the message of Gaudete Sunday sounds inopportune, if not insensible: how can we rejoice? Understandably, this reaction comes from people who have superficial understanding about salvation, in particular those with wrong expectations from Jesus.
To clarify this issue, the Gospel this Sunday tells us about the experience of John the Baptist. He spent his entire life in the desert in preparation for his role as the precursor of the Messiah. He courageously taught the people and led them to repentance. But now he is in prison for fearlessly denouncing the sins of the king. While in prison, he heard about the public ministry of Jesus. Why doesn’t he visit him? Why doesn’t he perform a miracle to free him from prison? Where is the fulfillment of the prophecy that the Messiah will set prisoners free? Perhaps John was somehow expecting some much-deserved favors from the Messiah. So it is understandable why he sent messengers to ask Jesus: “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?” Jesus responded, Yes, I am indeed the Messiah. You see all the signs. But please do not be disappointed if all your expectations are not met. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
It has always been our experience that expectations, when unmet, bring disappointments and frustrations. Wrong expectations breed ill feelings, and in some instances, violent reactions. Jesus was a victim of wrong expectations. The Jews were expecting a Messiah in the likeness of King David, a political Messiah. When it became clear he was not, they persecuted him and brought him to the cross.
Many of us judge God by our own human standards and pre-conceived expectations. We have this belief that material prosperity and physical well-being are signs of God’s favor. When we try to be good and faithful Christians, we expect God to reward us and exempt us from troubles and trials. So when a good man loses his job, or a devout lady gets sick, or an innocent child meets a tragic accident, we ask God, “Why”? But what about Jesus? He is the Son of God, yet he suffered the most humiliating and cruel death in the hands of unjust and sinful people. Do we bother to ask why? Do we ever raise our voices and complain to God?
In the presence of Pontius Pilate, Jesus publicly declared that he is King, “but my kingdom is not of this world.” In other words, he is saying that the world has no right to judge him. The blessings he brings are not limited to worldly and material blessings. He gives us more than what we expect that this limited and imperfect world can offer.
It is true that in the ministry of Jesus “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised.” But these are miracles that point not only to external physical realities. More importantly, they lead to profound internal and spiritual transformation. Jesus is God. His miraculous actions and powerful teachings are not limited only to material effects, but are most profoundly experienced as spiritual blessings. What is the use of healing the physical eyes and feet of a person when he continues to be spiritually blind and lame? What profit does a man have by having a healthy heart when it is hardened by selfishness and greed? The living signs of God’s kingdom inaugurated by Jesus are spiritual. The blind see, and the deaf hear – these refer to spiritual enlightenment. The lame walk and the dead are raised – these are spiritual empowerment. These spiritual blessings, in turn, lead to physical blessings. For instance, peace with God brings inner peace and even physical healing; forgiveness leads to peace and harmony in the world.
During a prayer meeting in a parish, the new prayer leader was a little nervous. He began with this instruction to the group: “Let us close our eyes and be aware of the presence of the Lord. And now… let us sing the hymn: ‘Open our Eyes, Lord’”. The group had a great laugh at this, but that is the truth. Many times our eyes are wide open but we remain spiritually blind. It is only the Lord who can open our eyes, spiritually and physically.
We are now in the third Sunday of Advent. Like John the Baptist, we are waiting for the true Messiah. But what are our expectations? If we are expecting a political or economic Messiah who will lead us out of dirty politics or economic crisis, we will surely be frustrated. Jesus offers us something more and beyond our myopic and biased expectations. If we but open our eyes of faith, we will realize that he brings us not only political freedom, but freedom from sin and the bondage of Satan; not only economic prosperity, but abundance in heavenly blessings that no amount of money can purchase; not only healing of bodily ailments, but wholeness of our entire being, both body and soul.
Realizing all these, we will, without fail, discover the meaning of St. Paul’s call on this Gaudete Sunday: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice! The Lord is near!”
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
St. Teresa Church
New York, NY 10002