Father Donald Senior, CP

Dec. 16: Third Sunday of Advent

December 5, 2018

Saved by beauty

Zep 3:14-18; Is 12:2-3, 4, 5-6; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18

This third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete or “rejoice” Sunday. It is as if, with most of the Advent season behind us, we are anticipating the joy soon to come. But what is the reason for joy?

Not long ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of Kate Hennessy’s biography of Dorothy Day titled, “The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother.” It is a wonderful biography of a truly exceptional person and likely saint (although Dorothy herself resisted anyone hinting at sainthood for her, saying “Don’t trivialize me”). The title is a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s epic novel, “The Idiot,” and was one of Day’s favorite quotations.

The encyclical on faith, “Lumen Fidei” (“The Light of Faith”), begun under Pope Benedict shortly before his resignation and then completed and published by Pope Francis, also refers to this quotation and puts it in context, noting that it is a declaration of the central figure of the novel, Prince Myskin, who suffers from severe epilepsy and is thus considered an “idiot.”

The encyclical states:

“In Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot,’ Prince Myskin sees a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger depicting Christ dead in the tomb and says: ‘Looking at that painting might cause one to lose his faith.’ The painting is a gruesome portrayal of the destructive effects of death on Christ’s body. Yet it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light; then it is revealed as faith in Christ’s steadfast love for us, a love capable of embracing death to bring us salvation.

“This love, which did not recoil before death in order to show its depth, is something I can believe in; Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely” (“Lumen Fidei,” 16).

I thought of that quotation in light of the readings for this Sunday. They, too, focus on God’s enduring love for us as the ultimate source of our joy. The first reading is from the prophet Zephaniah and its opening lines set the tone: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel!” Why? Because “the Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love.” 

The closing line of this passage is indescribably beautiful. It depicts God singing about us. “He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.”  

The Psalm response — which is a quote from Isaiah — sings in the same key: “Cry out with joy and gladness; for among you is the great and Holy one of Israel.”

The second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians also brims with joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice. … The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”

Amid these exuberant readings, the Gospel passage from Luke adds a sober note. The crowds who come to John the Baptist seeking a new life ask him bluntly: “What should we do?” John replies directly. People with two cloaks or extra food should share with those who have nothing; tax collectors should not cheat; soldiers should not use their power to extort or abuse anyone and should be satisfied with their wages.

These are all issues of justice that are so characteristic of Luke’s Gospel. The reason for these questions is, as the Gospel notes, “the people were filled with expectation.”

The “beauty” that will save us, as Dostoevsky knew, is the beauty of God’s enduring love, a love demonstrated in Jesus’ giving of his life for us. That is ground zero of Christian faith and that is the ultimate reason for our hope as people of faith. 

Responding to that love prompts us to do what is right, to be more gracious and responsible and loving ourselves. Striving to live in this manner brings authentic joy to the human heart.


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