REMINDER - No Mass on campus over the winter break. Our next Mass on campus will be Jan. 12.
Today, the third Sunday in Advent, is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday ("Gaudete" is the Latin word meaning "rejoice"). The name comes from the Entrance antiphon for today's Mass. Gaudéte in Dómino semper: íterum díco, gaudéte. Dóminus enim prope est. "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near." Because of the joyful character of today's Mass in the midst of this penitential season, the liturgical color is lightened from violet to rose.
So today, when homilists across the globe will be preaching about joy, I thought I'd take a somewhat different tack and talk about evil. Yes, yes, I know. Halloween is over, and with it scary movie season. It's nearly Christmas; we are supposed to be talking about hope and joy, happiness and good cheer. No one wants to hear about evil. 'Tis the season, after all!
But in case you haven't noticed, there's a lot wrong with the world. And no, I'm not just talking about the harm we cause one another (though there is certainly plenty of that to go around). I'm talking about the bad things that happen to people who really don't deserve it. People get sick. People become disabled, or are born that way. Some lack the ability to walk, or the ability to see, or the ability to hear, through no fault of their own. People have their homes destroyed in natural disasters. People lose loved ones to all manner of unavoidable tragedy. And people often feel these losses most acutely during the holiday season.
These things are evil. Don't get me wrong. I'm certainly not saying that people who suffer from maladies, or who are born with disabilities, are evil; nor am I saying they suffer because of some evil they have done. What I am saying is that the existence of these maladies is itself an evil. It's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls a physical evil (310).
Unlike a moral evil, no one is culpable for physical evils in this world. They are part of the reality we experience after the Fall; part of this creation God has made which itself is journeying toward perfection. Inasmuch as creation is not perfect yet, that is a physical evil. We may not be used to thinking of natural occurrences as "evil" because we typically reserve that word to something that involves a moral judgment. But we do recognize the existence of physical evil in our everyday speech. When someone is blind we say it is because there is "something wrong" with his eyes. When someone cannot hear there is "something wrong" with her ears. We recognize that something is not as it should be. Evil is, after all, simply the absence of a good that should be there.
"But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? ...with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely created a world 'in a state of journeying' toward its ultimate perfection. In God's plan this process of becoming involves... the existence of the more perfect alongside the existence of the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection" (CCC 310).
Creation is journeying toward perfection. This means it is not there yet, and so suffering still exists. But the prophet Isaiah gives us a foreshadowing today of what to expect in the perfect world to come. "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing" (Is 35:1-6a). In the new creation we find healing, not sickness; we find wholeness, not brokenness; we find sight, not blindness; no one will be dumb or mute, we will all sing in the choir of saints and angels.
John the Baptist knew that these were signs of the Kingdom of God. This is why, in today's gospel (Mt 11:2-11), when he asks if Jesus is the one who is to come, Jesus replies by citing the healing miracles He has performed. "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers and cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them." Jesus healed these people not only because He loved them individually (which of course He did); He was signalling a universal healing. Christ's ministry was not just to a few wounded and broken people in Palestine; it is a universal ministry for all places and all times. His ministry is nothing less than to bring creation to perfection. This is the good news. We, too, can be citizens of God's Kingdom, this perfect creation with no ills or calamities, no famine, no war, no poverty or homelessness. Think about all the sources of suffering in your life or in the lives of loved ones. No cancer. No heart disease. No diabetes. No fire or flood. No frightened hearts.
John the Baptist is the one sent to prepare the way before Christ. And what is that way? What must we do to become citizens of this new perfect creation? John tells us to do one thing, over and over again. "Repent!" This is where that other kind of evil comes into the story, the evil we are all too familiar with - moral evil.
"Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world" (CCC 311).
Just as physical evil is the absence of a good that ought to exist (an eye that cannot see, legs that cannot stand, a tongue without a voice, etc), so is moral evil the absence of a good. Only with moral evil, that absence is caused by our own choosing. And for those evils we commit, we are culpable. We are accountable when there is hatred instead of love; when there is greed instead of charity; when there is anger in place of forgiveness. When we commit moral evil, when we sin, we make ourselves less than we were created to be. We wound ourselves. We cannot take those wounds with us into paradise, where there is no brokenness.
Jesus healed the physical evils of the lame and the blind. So, too, He stands ready to heal the more harmful moral evils of our own sins. But just as moral evil is caused by our own choice, the healing must begin with our own choice. We need to choose to turn away from our sins. This is what it means to repent. We need to leave those evils behind us and ask humbly for His forgiveness. If we empty our heart of sin, Christ will fill it with joy. To quote our first pope, "There is cause for rejoicing here" (1 Pt 1:6). To quote our current pope, "The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept His offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew" (Evangelii Gaudium 1).
Prepare your heart to welcome Jesus this Advent. Prepare yourself to be a citizen of that perfect world to come. Then you can sing with the saints, Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near! Gaudete!