This year’s refrain for the Responsorial Psalm for the Second Sunday of Advent was “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” This refrain is indeed true in itself. When people come to recognize and experience God’s salvation they experience joy. Yet there may be some of those who have been baptized who hear this refrain and think to themselves, “Well, I certainly don’t feel joyful.” I do not intend to discredit or overlook those who have experienced joy at the coming of salvation, but we need to acknowledge that there are many who are not joyful at this time. We know by faith in Divine Revelation that God is our salvation. Otherwise, we would find no value in going to Mass on Sundays or going to confession. But the question remains for those who are not experiencing joy, “Why then am I not joyful? If I truly believe that God is my salvation, why am I not experiencing joy in my life right now?”
Among those who lack joy, there are likely many who are currently undergoing some severe trials and miseries in their lives. The cause of these trials and miseries may vary depending upon the circumstances of those who are undergoing them. They might be the result of one’s own personal fault or they could be the result of circumstances beyond one’s control or it could be a mixture of both. It could be helpful to view our own current life situation and our own miseries in light of the situation of the people of ancient Israel and see how Divine Revelation can shed light on the cause of our own misery. Then we might find the grace and the strength to call upon the Lord with greater faith and sincerity, that He might change our misery into joy. After all, God loves us immeasurably as a Father loves his children. He does not want His children to remain in misery, but to experience the joy that only God can give.
The Good News of salvation is supposed to bring us joy because it relieves us from the primary source of our misery. When we look more closely at the responsorial psalm for the Second Sunday of Advent, Psalm 126, we see that Israel’s experience of misery had been caused by their captivity at the hands of the Babylonians and their exile in a foreign land. The Israelites had been conquered by their enemies and taken into slavery by foreign rulers. They longed for many years for the salvation of God, but it seemed like it would never come. They might have been tempted to lose hope when the coming of God’s salvation was delayed. Then, when the salvation of the Lord finally comes, at first the people think they are dreaming. It’s too good to be true. They find it hard to believe that their hopes have come to fulfillment at last. When it dawns on them that the Lord has truly set them free from the hands of their enemies, they are filled with joy and laughter. They give praise and thanks to the God of Israel and recommit themselves to obeying His commands. If we are experiencing misery in our own lives, how can we come to experience the joy of salvation like the people of Israel? Even more importantly, how do we prolong this experience of joy, once we have it, so that we might find ourselves in a permanent state of joy throughout our lives?
The misery of the ancient Israelites may provide with some valuable insight into the source of our own misery. The first reading for the Second Sunday of Advent comes from the book of the prophet Baruch 5:1-9. This prophetic book is written in the style of a beautiful dialogue between the people of Jerusalem and the Lord God. The book’s historical setting takes place after the people of the kingdom of Judah, the southern kingdom of the nation of Israel, had already been conquered by the Babylonians and many of the people had been taken into exile in Babylon. The people who remain in Jerusalem become sorrowful upon hearing the teaching of the prophet Baruch. They realize that their current situation of misery has come about as a chastisement for their own sinfulness. They openly admit that they had sinned, had neglected the Lord’s commands, and had turned away from true worship of God to the worship of idols. They had committed all sorts of injustices and even sacrificed their own sons and daughters to false gods. When the Lord handed his people over to their enemies, He also expected them to obey and to submit to the king of Babylon. Yet they even refused to obey this command as well.
Having acknowledged and confessed all their sins before the Lord, the people beg the Lord for His mercy and His salvation. They praise the Lord for His wisdom and for the wonderful things He has done for their forefathers. They remind the Lord of the mercy He has shown towards their fathers and the covenantal promises that he has made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the patriarchs of Israel. They ask the Lord to extend His graciousness to their descendants as well. The reading from Baruch chapter 5 includes part of God’s response to His people’s plea for mercy. It’s a message of comfort and consolation, promising that the Lord Himself will be their Savior. In preparation for the Lord’s coming, Baruch writes that “God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground.” These words are obviously not meant to be taken literally, otherwise the people would witness actual mountains being leveled and valleys being filled in. Rather, these words symbolize Israel’s need for conversion. If they are to receive the salvation of the Lord, they are to humble themselves by turning away from their selfish pride, by turning away from their idols of silver and gold (from pursuing money, power, and pleasure), and by ceasing to exploit each other for their own benefit. Those with the means to do so are to help those who are poor such as the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner (the migrant).
In the Gospel reading from Luke (3:1-6) for the Second Sunday of Advent, the setting of which takes place hundreds of years after the events of Baruch, the immediate forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist, comes on the scene preaching a similar message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people of Israel now find themselves under the rule of the Romans instead of the Babylonians. John’s baptism of repentance is meant to be a symbolic expression of one’s intention to repent, to turn away from sin, and to change one’s ways. Luke the evangelist quotes from the prophet Isaiah (ch. 40), whose words very similar to the words of the prophet Baruch: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” When people come to John the Baptist asking what they must do to repent and to bear good fruit, he tells them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” When tax collectors ask John what they must do, he responds, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” In other words, the tax collectors are to stop exploiting people for more money that what is just. When soldiers come and ask John what they must do, he responds, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” John’s advice differs depending on the group of people that comes to him. But the point is that everyone needs repentance and conversion in one way or another. This repentance is necessary to experience the salvation of God. It might be true that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” but this does not mean that everyone who sees it will experience it for themselves. Only those who truly repent and seek to reform their sinful lives will experience salvation.
John the Baptist thus prepares for the coming of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh. When Jesus comes on the scene, he preaches the coming of the kingdom of God and performs miraculous healings and signs, thus demonstrating that the kingdom of God is already among the people. The poor, the crippled, the deaf, the blind, and the demon possessed, all those who have experienced misery from the effects of sin and who carry heavy burdens, rejoice when they experience the salvation, healing, and liberation of God through Jesus Christ. The Apostles will later experience misery at witnessing their innocent Lord and Master being treated as a criminal and then executed; yet they greatly rejoice when they see Him risen from the dead once again. They are thus given the joyful hope that all who have died with Christ in Baptism will also rise again with Him in the resurrection on the last day. Jesus Christ is the salvation of God for which the people of Israel have longed for centuries. Jesus is the Lord God Himself who saves His people from their sins. God’s people now include not only the people of Israel who believe in Jesus, but all people who have faith in Him. The descendants of Abraham are no longer limited to physical or familial descent, but include all people who profess their faith in the Lord Jesus, both Jew and Gentile, and are baptized. Hence, as Luke says in his Gospel narrative, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” God’s plan of salvation is more universal and more wonderful than the ancient prophets could have imagined.
This brings us back to the question that I posed earlier: “What is the cause of our experience misery in our own lives and how can we experience the joy of God’s salvation?” I do not pretend to have an answer to every single person’s life situation or circumstances. I am not a prophet like John the Baptist or Baruch or Isaiah. Sometimes people who experience misery in their lives need some sort of special medical assistance, professional counseling, or therapy. There is nothing wrong with seeking additional assistance, in fact it is praiseworthy. In saying the following, I do not intend to propose oversimplistic solutions that apply to every situation. However, there are some general spiritual lessons we can draw from our reflection upon the misery of the people of Israel and their experience of joy and gratitude at witnessing the salvation of God. First, it is necessary to humbly acknowledge the source of our misery, which is ordinarily a result of our own sinfulness and our refusal to recognize or admit it. There might be a variety of reasons for our reluctance to acknowledge our sins. These reasons may include pride, shame, insecurity, or a lack of trust in God’s mercy. Yet this season of Advent serves as a powerful reminder of God’s great mercy, of His everlasting covenantal promises to Abraham, our father in faith, and of the fact that He has come not to condemn us for our sins, but to save us from them. To experience God’s forgiveness and redemption, we need to humbly confess our sins, repent, and change our minds and hearts to be more in conformity with God’s law and will. We are called to allow God to soften our hardened hearts and to replace our stony hearts with hearts of flesh. If we find ourselves doing things that we know are wrong, such as exploiting people for excessive profit, speaking evil about others, or neglecting to share the abundance of what we have with the poor and needy, then we need to change our ways. When we truly repent of our sins and receive God’s mercy, realizing that He does not hold even our gravest sins against us, then we experience the joy of salvation.
But this joy can only last if we share the Good News of salvation with others. If we keep the message of the Gospel only to ourselves, we risk losing what we have received. Think about the joy that a married couple experiences at the birth of their child. Their joy exceeds the misery they experienced during the preceding months of pregnancy and the many hours spent in labor. The couple naturally desires to share their joy with others, and they zealously announce the good news to their family and friends. They may even share photos of themselves with their new baby on social media for the whole world to see. In a similar way, we are called to share the joyful message of salvation with others, especially with those most in need of God’s mercy, so that the joy of the Lord might be multiplied.
The work of evangelization, to which all the baptized are called, is carried out not only with words, but also with our works of charity. Just as we have experienced the mercy and love of God through others, especially by means of the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist, so we are called to facilitate an experience of God’s mercy for others, to freely offer mercy to others. As we have been graciously shown God’s mercy, so we are to be merciful. We are to obey the commandments of Our Lord, who teaches us to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love is not merely a feeling of affection, but it manifests itself in concrete actions. If we honestly examine ourselves during this season of Advent, truly acknowledge our sins, confess them openly and sincerely especially in confession with confidence in God’s mercy, receive God’s mercy, and go and show God’s mercy to others, then we may, with the help of God’s grace, overcome our own misery and have a more profound experience of joy than ever before. If we allow ourselves to undergo a real conversion, a change of mind and heart, and seek to put on the mind of Christ, then we can more readily participate in the Lord’s salvation and experience a profound joy that is greater than any mere momentary sense of pleasure. It is a joy that no evil can destroy and that lasts forever in the eternal happiness of the kingdom of heaven together with God, the angels, and the whole communion of saints.
– Fr. Matthew Mary