3rd Sunday of Advent – Gaudate Sunday
Zeph 3:14-18a; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18
It is said that the second largest group of Christians after Catholics in the US is ex-Catholics. That’s a very sad commentary, and I think we as a Church have to admit a lot of the blame. In my opinion, these people are leaving because they never really knew their own tradition. Catechesis of the young in many places and for many years has been pathetically unsatisfactory. Perhaps the preaching of us priests has been wanting too. Since Vatican II there has been a lot of confusion and dissent about official Church teaching on morals and doctrine. Enthusiasm seems to be waning. And the sex abuse scandals among the clergy and hierarchy has left many disheartened. Somehow, the beauties and treasures of our faith that were lovingly and carefully handed down through many centuries have been covered over and remain undiscovered by so many.
One recurring complaint of a lot ex-Catholics is “Catholic guilt.” They claim that our system is fear-based. It’s unfortunate that they would be left with a distorted image. Fear and guilt are just two emotions in the wide spectrum of feelings in the Judeo-Christian tradition. At the monastery here we chant our way through all of the 150 Psalms every week in the Book of Psalms. These were sung by Jews for many centuries before Christ, were sung by Christ himself and his mother and father, and have been sung by Christians and Jews since then for two millennia. In the Psalms one encounters the whole gamut of emotions: joy, sorrow, contrition, sadness, anger, revenge, exuberance, exultation – there are many other things in addition to fear and guilt. Those two things play a role, but they are balanced out by all the other emotions – they don’t dominate. When one reads the beautiful documents of Vatican II one doesn’t get the impression that guilt and fear dominate those teachings either.
Perhaps some of it goes back to the nuns who taught in Catholic schools. They were trying to impress upon children reasons for doing good and avoiding evil. I guess it would be similar to the myth of Santa Claus keeping a list of who’s naughty and nice. For young minds, maybe fear of God was a more effective motivation than love of God. But as we outgrow the child phase of our lives, we also need to outgrow the child phase of our spirituality. We need to choose the good and the beautiful and the true because they are truly appealing in themselves, and we will remain unsatisfied if we choose counterfeits instead.
St. Bernard has a very helpful homily regarding the motivation for doing good and avoiding evil. He speaks about the slave, the hireling, and the son. The slave does what he’s supposed to out of fear of being whipped or beaten. That’s a lower form of motivation. The hireling behaves out of love for money – a sort of “what’s in it for me” attitude. In the spiritual life you might see a person doing penances and saying many prayers in order to build up a great treasure room for himself in heaven. And then there is the highest and most desirable form of motivation represented by the son. He does what is right out of his great love for his father. He doesn’t want to offend his father in any way or disappoint him; he just wants to make him happy and give him joy. This is a “what’s in it for God” kind of attitude. We conform to God’s wishes because he has done so much for us and he so deserves it. So a less mature faith might be represented by the nun of old times with her ruler threatening her young listeners with hell and purgatory. That’s a legitimate motivation and has its rightful place, but it has to be balanced by more mature motivations. As adults, hopefully, we are progressing in our love of God, and our motivations for being good people are becoming less fear-based, less greedy and “what’s in it for me,” and moving more toward what’s best for God and other people, which, ironically, will ultimately bring us the most joy and fulfilment.
Our liturgy this morning demonstrates for us that our Catholic faith isn’t all about fear and feeling guilty. In the midst of a rather penitential season, Advent – sort of a mini-Lent – we have a bouncy, jubilant “Gaudate Sunday.” “Gaudate,” of course, is Latin for “rejoice.” And that is the theme for the first two readings. The prophet Zephaniah bubbles over with, “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” And St. Paul to the Philippians encourages, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! . . . Have no anxiety at all . . . Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” This is a far shot from doom and gloom, from Catholic guilt and fear-based morality and spirituality.
Our Gospel selection from Luke is very balanced and commonsense. “The crowds asked John the Baptist, ‘What should we do?’ He said to them in reply, ‘Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.’ “ Instead of shaming the tax collectors and telling them they were bad people, he simply told them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” The Romans were hated as the occupying force, but in response to the sincere questioning of the soldiers, John replied, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” Very reasonable answers, right?
However, in reaction to perhaps an overemphasis of fear and guilt in the past, we mustn’t go to the other extreme with just a fluffy, feel-good Gospel with no hell, no purgatory, and no consequences for our poor choices, where everybody automatically goes to heaven. To show that “fear of God” still has to be part of a healthy mix, we hear in our Gospel reading St. John the Baptist warning those same listeners, “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
With a group as large as ex-Catholics, each one of us in this room can think of one, can put a face on the subject. Perhaps for many of us it is loved ones and people very dear to us. Some have joined other religions, some don’t bother to go to church anymore. If that doesn’t affect our hearts in some way, I think there is something wrong. I think our best response is to continue to love them and show them kindness, continue to pray for them with all our hearts, and do the best we can to live a good life and attract them with our example. If we are truly joyful, as this Sunday reminds us, people will want to know our secret and imitate us.