Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

Dominica tertia Adventus
Evening, 10 December 2016
Church of St John the Evangelist / Agawam

In him was life . . . But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God,
 to them that believe in his name (Jn 1:4, 12 ). 

St John Chrysostom says somewhere[1] that suffering comes our way for two reasons: either it heals our sins or increases our sanctity. These two categories are broad enough to account for a great deal of suffering, but the distinction is nevertheless true and helpful. Often, when trials come our way, we regard more the origin and cause of the suffering than we do the fact of the suffering itself; and when we do this, we often stoke our anxiety and lose sight of what suffering is meant to achieve for us in the spiritual life. This is why Chrysostom’s teaching is important—because it tells us that the origin of the suffering has less import than we commonly grant it.

For instance, if a man is caught stealing from his employer and is found out, he will, quite likely, lose his job. All the hardships and sufferings of unemployment will follow. Sin, we all know by experience, is its own punishment. This man suffers on account of justice, it is true: but the suffering that he undergoes—as he experiences it—is meant, not for his destruction, but to excite him to repentance and reform. If he chooses to repent sincerely, then this does his soul great good. For him, then, he endures a suffering that heals: Chrysostom’s first category.

A second example. Consider the same man who, instead, notices that his employer is engaged in criminal business practices and subsequently reports this activity to the authorities. The employer is publicly exposed and arrested. But our man is alarmed one day when he finds his home broken into and ransacked by his former employer’s thugs. Here, he endures the destruction of his property, etc. But he has suffered “for the sake of righteousness,” as the Scriptures put it; therefore, if he bears these sufferings well—namely, with courage and equanimity—he has been made holier. Chrysostom’s second category.        

The Last Gospel tells us that we receive the divine adoption from Christ, the Word: dedit eis potestatem filios Dei fieri. “He gave them power to be made sons of God.” Truly, our adoption as the children of God begins decisively at Baptism. Note well, however, St John’s verb: fieri: to be made or to become. Becoming means movement from one state of being to another. Baptismal grace is decisive and sufficient for salvation, but it is meant flower and grow ever more perfectly in a human life. “He gave them power to become the sons of God.” Suffering serves this becoming.   

But if we return to Chrysostom’s insight, we understand something else about suffering. Suffering, now, is not some kind of unfortunate accident of human life; indeed, it may be an effect of Original Sin, but now it serves a distinct purpose in the spiritual life. Again, the Last Gospel tells us that in ipso vita erat. “In him was life.” Not death, but life. And so the Catholic sense is that suffering is not primarily destructive, but formative. It is meant, not to break or harden us, but to order and soften us, like clay in the hand of the potter;[2] like the color rose is a softening of our penitential violet.

“He gave them power to be made the sons of God.” All sons and daughters need a mother. The Father, in his goodness, has given us two—the Church and our Lady.[3] If suffering is an effectual, formative reality in the spiritual life of the Christian, the Church and the Immaculate Virgin preside over this process in our lives. The Sacraments of this Church free us from sin and sanctify the suffering we encounter, as we “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.”[4] In turn, the Virgin Mary is, in one sense, the Church personified because both she and the Church have received the spotless grace of God: “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, . . . that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.”[5] You can see how, in light of her Immaculate Conception, this scripture applies to her most fittingly.

There is a great deal of theology contained in these passages and we have strayed a little farther afield than is needed. Suffice it to say, our suffering is caught up in these mysteries. As we said above, suffering serves the ultimate purpose of bringing order to the spiritual life; of softening the heart when it has been hardened by sin. The Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, effects this salutary softening of the hardened heart most effectively.

Today, the Church sings, Gaudéte in Dómino semper: íterum dico, gaudéte.[6] On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Church sings, Gaudens gaudébo in Dómino, et exsultábit ánima mea in Deo meo.[7] How is it that you and I have the audacity to contemplate suffering and rejoicing at the same time?—Not only simply to contemplate, but to live our lives in both suffering and joy? (The world believes us mad for it, by the way.)[8] In a word, because of the Church; because of the Immaculate Virgin. Remember what the Last Gospel says of Christ: “In ipso vita erat. . . . But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name.” In Mary Immaculate and the Church, we are made sons of Christ because we have received faith in his name.

Oh Mary, conceived without sin: pray for us who have recourse to Thee.     

[1] Source needed.     
[2] Cf Is 64:8; Jer 18:1-7.
[3] Cf discussions—both ancient and contemporary—that theologically identify Mary with the Church; eg, Isaac of Stella (c 1100 - c 1170) , in The Liturgy of the Hours, vol 1, Saturday of the 2nd week of Advent: “In the inspired Scriptures, what is said in a universal sense of the virgin mother, the Church, is understood in an individual sense of the Virgin Mary, and what is said in a particular sense of the virgin mother Mary is rightly understood in a  general sense of the virgin mother, the Church. When either is spoken of, the meaning can be understood of both, almost without qualification.”   
[4] Col 1:24; RSV.
[5] Eph 5:26-27.
[6] “Rejoice in the Lord always: I said it again, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4)!
[7] “With great joy I rejoice in the Lord, and my soul will exult in my God” (Isaiah 61:10).
[8] Here, an excursus on euthanasia was given. The world finds suffering the most intolerable of evils; if this were not the case, then there would be no such thing as euthanasia or, for that matter, abortion. The Catholic sense of suffering is more radical and counter-cultural than we often think.     

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