Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’ John 1:23
The story is told in the writings of certain spiritual masters of the man who read the words from St. Paul, “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17). He wondered what St. Paul could mean. How could someone “pray without ceasing”, all the time, without stopping. After much searching, he came across a simple prayer that became for him his every thought because it expressed an essential unworthiness and total dependence on God and Jesus Christ. “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner.” We know it as the “Jesus prayer.”
That instruction “Pray without ceasing” occurs in the second reading for this Sunday. When we look to the context of those words, as we should, we see that St. Paul is speaking of a prayerful attitude of mind that should permeate our every moment. He writes, “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 1:18). We note again that “thanks” in the original Greek language of St. Paul is the word from which we, as Christians, get our word “Eucharist.” The Eucharist is a giving thanks. It is what Jesus did the night before he died when he took the bread and gave thanks (cf. I Corinthians 11:23-24). It is what we will do in a few moments, when I, as priest, will take the bread and wine and repeat what Jesus did the night before He died. It is our most perfect act of worship.
In giving thanks, we acknowledge the Creator. That is the essential merit in thanksgiving. We point to the true origin of all we have, which is not man but God. In a sense, this is what John the Baptist does in the Gospel. The Gospel says, “He was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (John 1:8). “I am not the Messiah,” (John 1:20) John the Baptist would reply to those who asked. John the Baptist is a “voice of one crying in the desert” (John 1:23) because his voice is unique. He calls to repentance in order to prepare for the imminent coming of the one who is really important. “John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).
Repentance was needed to prepare the way of the Lord. In acknowledging sin, those who repented were able to better turn their attention to the author of all that was good. This required a humility that John the Baptist was all to ready to admit. He said he was “not worthy to untie” “his sandal strap” (John 1:27). John the Baptist was a herald. He announced the coming. He was not the one who was coming. Repentance was an important message because it performed two functions: it opened the heart to God and it led to thanksgiving.
Every act of worship, every prayer we utter, should begin with an act of repentance. This is why the insight of the spiritual master, mentioned earlier, is so much to the point. “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner” best prepares the soul for what will follow. We can only give thanks “in all circumstances” when we have opened the soul to God. For this reason, every Mass we celebrate begins with a calling to mind of sin. The Eucharist, which is our act of thanksgiving, begins with first having made known our weaknesses and how much we need God in His mercy.
If Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord, then admonition of St. Paul is worth taking seriously. “Rejoice always,” he writes. “Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus…. Retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:17-18, 21-22).