Because of the First Reading and because we’re now in Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year, I’ve discerned a theme that we’re going to be discussing during Advent and Christmas, and that theme is: Begin Again.
[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
This has been a challenging year, and we all can spiritually lose our footing at some point: We’re distracted, perhaps depleted, discouraged, or isolated.
But God always begins again in our lives. That’s the point of His renewing every covenant with mankind: We break our marriage relationship with Him and what does He do? Begins again (Cf. CCC 55).
God says in the First Reading, “Comfort, O comfort my people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (Is 40:1-2). It’s His nature to comfort those who are afflicted. It’s also His nature to challenge us, because in order to be truly happy and reach perfection, we need to be pushed outside our comfort zone. But the First Reading says that the time of suffering for the people of Jerusalem is over.
The theme of Begin Again is taken from the teachings of Venerable Bruno Lanteri, an Italian priest who lived from 1759-1830, in very difficult times: The French Revolution persecuted the Church, with priests and nuns being killed, while inside the Church, there was a heresy called Jansenism, which “obscured the truth of God’s love”.
In Ven. Bruno’s life and in the lives of all the people he served, they were tempted by discouragement, suffering, and physical pain, but his main message was: “Never give in to discouragement; lift your heart immediately to the God who loves you, and begin again” (Fr. Timothy Gallagher, Overcoming Spiritual Discouragement, 6-7).
Here are three areas where we can begin again:
1) In understanding Who God truly is. The psalm we prayed today says, “Show us your steadfast love, O Lord” (Ps 84). During two previous Christmas Masses, I taught you that the words ‘steadfast love’ is one word in Hebrew: Hesed. I need you to remember this word for life. Do you know God’s love as steadfast?
Ven. Bruno writes: “It is very important to understand deeply how good God is, and not to measure him by our own limitations or think that he tires of our wavering, weakness, and negligence; that because of our sins he withdraws his help and denies his grace…. Let us think of him as he truly is, filled with goodness, mercy, and compassion, and let us know him as the loving Father he is, who raises us when we have fallen, who never tires of forgiving us, and to whom we give great joy and honor when we seek forgiveness”.
Imagine there’s a person who’s always late, promises to help but never does, and never lives up to his or her potential. We get tired of this person! And we tend to think God the Father will respond as we do, but He doesn’t. We’ve probably tried this year to grow spiritually and morally, but have failed in some ways. God the Father doesn’t give up on us, and doesn’t want us to give up in our spiritual growth.
Let me tell you a delicate story about God’s fatherhood, and I share this with permission. A woman once came to me and shared that, years ago, she fell in love with a priest. Nothing sinful ever happened, thank God, but she went to two other priests for advice on what to do. Unfortunately, these two priests didn’t give her an experience of God’s fatherhood; they didn’t do anything wrong, but their comments didn’t redirect her focus to God the Father’s steadfast love for her as His child.
Like this woman, all of us have vulnerable areas in our lives and past that we don’t like to discuss, because they’re embarrassing and we feel shame. And probably most of us have never experienced God the Father’s true love for us when we reveal such experiences. When this woman told me about her experience, I tried to pass on to her a kind of fatherhood that had been revealed to me over the years. Whenever I told P. Alban and Msgr. O’Brien, my two spiritual directors over the years, embarrassing parts of my life, they always reacted calmly, lovingly, and rationally. Both of them always walked the very perfect line, not giving into moral laxity; not giving into scrupulosity. “Laxity” means taking sin too lightly; that’s obviously wrong because it leads to sin. “Scrupulosity” is in excess, that actually makes things worse, an overreaction to sin. And neither of my spiritual directors ever did that, they just walked a perfect line. And so, when this woman revealed to me her temptation, I didn’t overreact or express shock, but I reminded her that she didn’t do anything sinful and that experiencing a bad temptation doesn’t mean she’s bad.
So, my question to you is: Do you know that God the Father would react similarly if you revealed to Him the embarrassing parts of your life? You might feel like you’re a bad person for having some temptation or committing a grave sin, but God the Father looks on you with love; He’s calm and rational.
2) We begin again in understanding God’s purpose for our lives. St. Peter writes in the Second Reading, “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise… but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pt 3:8-9). God the Father wants us to come to repentance, meaning a change of heart, away from sin and towards Him. God gives us time on earth to move towards Him, and this time includes suffering. This year has been full of suffering. So, we need to begin again by remembering God’s purpose for our lives and the reasons why suffering is allowed.
Do you believe there are different levels of happiness? Philosophers say there are four levels: level 1, pleasure, immediate gratification; level 2, achievement, ego satisfaction; level 3, when we contribute to the good of others; and level 4 is the ultimate good, eternal spiritual happiness. According to Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., 70% of people default to seeking levels 1 and 2, as our predominant levels of happiness; levels 3 and 4 really don’t exist for us. During COVID-19, if levels 1 and 2 are our predominant levels of happiness, COVID-19 is going to hurt us eminently; our happiness is really going to suffer. But what does suffering do? It forces us to look at higher levels of happiness, levels 3 and 4, that of contribution and the ultimate good. You can never lose your level 4 happiness; no suffering can affect that.
Since God the Father loves us, He wants us to be truly happy, to experience levels 3 and 4. It would be nice if we didn’t need suffering to get us there. But that’s not how we work; we get stuck because levels 1 and 2 are immediately gratifying. Suffering removes this and challenges us to think: “Is there more?” And God will allow it, so that we reach ultimate happiness.
Remember, if we protect our children from all suffering, they become spiritually and morally weak. Good parents allow their children to undergo adversity, and that’s what God is doing for our good. We need to think in terms of eternity. We don’t have to suffer forever. But, for this short time of suffering, we have the opportunity of self-definition, and can determine who we will be. During this crisis, are we going to be disciples of Christ and people of virtue? Are we going to seek levels 3 and 4 happiness?
Understanding God’s purpose for our lives doesn’t always make suffering easy. But in a moment of hopelessness this year, this truth did keep me focused and got me through the hopelessness. We can all begin again by understanding God’s purpose for our lives.
3) We begin again in receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. The Gospel talks about St. John the Baptist’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4). To begin again, we need God’s forgiveness.
Ven. Bruno wrote, “I will not allow myself to be discouraged, however I may fall… Though I fall a thousand times, each time… I will rise again as peaceful as if it were the first, knowing my weakness and knowing, Lord, your great mercy… If I should fall even a thousand times a day, a thousand times, with peaceful repentance, I will say immediately, [now I begin], my God, my God!”.
How many times a day do we fall and sin? With the first person to whom we talk when we wake up, in the car, at work and school, by wasting time, etc. But the good news is God’s great mercy! If we fall a thousand times today, a thousand times we’ll get up peacefully and turn to God for forgiveness. Many people have shared with me how renewing it’s been to go to Confession during this crisis. It’s a spiritual fresh start and gives us stability. Yesterday, I was amazed that the line-up for Confession led to six straight hours of offering the Sacrament!
In the next few weeks, we’re going to look again at the essentials of God’s vision for our parish. We’re going to begin again in terms of our love for the Eucharist, our desire to be saints, loving like Jesus, and then sharing Him with everyone we meet. We’re going to look forward to a blessed Christmas, and then Alpha on January 7, 2021.
I’ve come out of a difficult time in my life. I never thought that I would be so run down that I would need ten weeks to recover, to work on my problems, and to come to understand God’s mercy in a profoundly deeper way, and to understand His purpose for my life. A number of you have said I’m beaming, which is something you never said about me before(!), but what I’ve received is a grace that God the Father wants for all of us. And a big part of my renewal is beginning again. I begin again every day, sometimes every hour, because God begins again.