“I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you” (Phil 1:4a). Sisters and brothers, these words of St. Paul in today’s second reading remind me of words that are attributed to the Jesuit priest and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Paul in another of his letters—to the Church of Galatia—lists “joy” as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Gal 5:22). Brothers and sisters, since you and I have received the gift of the Spirit both in Baptism and Confirmation, why then does our world seem to be so glum and have so little joy, today?!
I know right away, you might want to say to me: “Bishop, have you seen what is going on in the world and even in our own nation and communities? What is there to be happy about?” But as the spiritual writer Catherine Upchurch notes: “While the sentiment is understandable, surely what we want … is more than happiness. Happiness is fleeting and usually a response to outside circumstances such as a great party, a promotion, or an athletic victory. While these things can make us feel happy, the feeling does not last; it simply can’t because circumstances change.”
Catherine goes on to say: “Joy, on the other hand, especially finding joy in the Lord, is not about feelings. It is rooted in the conviction that God is with us through whatever circumstances we find ourselves, and that our lives have purpose because of God’s presence with us and in us.” Indeed, in the psalm response, you and I have just prayed: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.”
It is this presence of God in our lives, brothers and sisters, that I would like to focus on this Lord’s Day. I can’t help but think if we have no joy, where then have we put God? It reminds of a story I once heard of a little boy playing hide and seek. At one point when he was hiding and for some unknown reason all his playmates dispersed and left him alone. His grandfather heard his crying and came out of the house to see what was wrong. He gathered the young lad into his arms who tearily told him what had happened. At that moment, the grandfather looked tenderly at his grandson and said: “Do not weep, my child, because your friends did not come to find you. Perhaps you can learn a lesson from this disappointment. All of life is like a game between God and us. Only it is God who is weeping, for we are not playing the game fairly. God is waiting to be found, but many have gone in search of other things.”
The Word of God on this Second Sunday of Advent certainly proclaims to you and me, sisters and brothers, God’s desire to meet up with us on the road of life! In fact, He wishes to remove all obstacles between God and the human family. The ultimate sign of this desire we will encounter in the middle of the coming week when on Wednesday the Church is called to gather to call to mind the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The importance of this gathering is to be found in our Scripture readings this Lord’s Day as they not only speak about the human race’s alienation from God, but of God providing a way back—beginning with the sinless conception of the Virgin Mary. In Mary, we see one gifted by God who in turn freely and decisively opens her life entirely to God. It is in this openness to God through which the world would be reconciled with God. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, our mother Mary would carry the God Incarnate … God’s Word made flesh … on to the road of life and to all its curves and dips and its high points and low points. In short, Mary’s faith-filled response to God in her life illustrates for you and me how it literally begins to make all things new!
Now, brothers and sisters, this might be where you and I begin to squirm a bit because Mary’s “Yes” to God invites us to examine our “Yes” to God. After all, St. Paul not only speaks about his joy-filled prayer for us in today’s second reading, but he also reminds us of our “partnership for the gospel” (Phil 1:5). How have you and I partnered ourselves with God as we walk the road of life or have we forgotten that God is on this journey with us and that you I have been given the same Holy Spirit that Mary received? Is that why our world seems so dark and glum these days? Simply put, I would invite each of us who hear God’s Word this day to consider the ways in which we say “yes” or “no” to God in our daily living.
Rather than God exiling us … have we exiled God from our world? Taking God out of the marketplace? Closing certain doors or rooms in our lives to God; or trying to keep Him hid from others? As I go throughout our diocese whether on pastoral visits or engaging listening sessions, I am conscious of one important thing—the ways in which one says “yes” to God can inspire others to say “yes” to God.
Today, in preparation for the upcoming celebration of the Immaculate Conception, our local Church calls to mind the “yes” and the accompanying good works of fellow believers through the presentation of the Immaculata Awards. This award was established by my predecessor, Bishop Emeritus Robert J. Cunningham, the tenth Bishop of Syracuse, to honor lay men and women throughout our Diocese for their faithful service to Christ and His Church, particularly in their parish communities. To these women and men we offer our congratulations in expression of our gratitude for their witness. They are living and concrete examples of showing how God is active in our lives and of the discipleship first modeled for us by Mary, Mother of the Savior, Mother of the Church. They are also the prophets of our day calling you and me to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Lk 3:4) and help others to “see the salvation of God” (Lk 3:6).
So let me conclude by using St. Paul’s prayer for the local Church of Philippi as my prayer for our local Church:
“That your love may increase ever more and more
in knowledge and every kind of perception,
to discern what is of value,
so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
filled with the fruit of righteousness
that comes through Jesus Christ
for the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:9-11). Amen.