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Gaudete Sunday, Year A, 15.12.19: Old Fagan

 

Remember Fagan? The old thief in Oliver Twist who trained boys to pickpocket! I remember a scene from the 1960’s film showing a pile of “loot” on a table in the hovel where he lived with the boys. Fagan and the boys were very happy, celebrating in dance and song their takings for the day.

 

Shift now your mind’s eye to another typical scene of “happiness”: the person who has just downed a good few glasses of their favourite beverage. With slur and hiccup you can hear them say, “I’m soooo happy!”

 

Move the camera now to a hospital bedside where a young mother holds her new-born babe in her arms, her husband with his arms around her shoulder. They pose for a photo or video, beaming with joy, with no need to say cheese.

 

Of these three pictures, which portrays true joy? The answer is obvious. The happiness of thievery is fake; the pleasure of drunkenness is an illusion; but the joy born of true love, especially life-giving love, will endure even in the face of pain and trials to come. For if is true that pleasure is a good thing in itself, it inevitably leads to sadness if it is wrongly sought or used. Happiness is a good thing but it is short-lived if the means of reaching it are wrong.

 

On this “Gaudete” Sunday let’s be clear that true joy is the spiritual delight which springs forth spontaneously from true love. Joy is the first fruit of the Holy Spirit after love itself. It cannot be engineered or organized. It cannot coexist with deception or sin.

 

Since the greatest love is God’s love, then it follows that God’s own joy is the greatest joy and that to live in that love leads to everlasting joy. Think of the joy of Christ on his day of resurrection! Even when referring to his passion and Cross in these words, “there is a baptism I must receive and how great is my distress until I receive it”, we can detect in his voice an anticipation of the supreme joy which will come from this supreme act of love, no matter what it cost.

 

We are Christians. We believe we are loved by Christ with an everlasting love. But do we experience joy? I am sure, I hope, we all do, at least to some degree. For, can a joyless Christian truly be a Christian? Said differently, can a loveless Christian, deprived or unaware of the real love of Christ for him or her, truly be a Christian?

 

The enemy of Christ and of humanity is also certainly the enemy of our joy. In fact, he is incandescent with rage that we experience any joy at all. He’s all for the fake joy, the deceitful dangling of tinsel pleasure before us, with the sole purpose of leading us to sadness and disappointment when the false appearances dissolve. He’s like the wicked witch in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, ever ready to hand us a juicy apple injected with poison. He’s the demonic Fagan who pickpockets our joy. He’s happy enough to hijack God’s creation of pleasure and happiness and, by duping us into feasting on them in the wrong way and in the wrong measure, leave us morally and spiritually bankrupt. Seeing us deflated and discouraged gives him perverse joy.

 

But there is another way in which he seeks to corrode our Christian joy and he has managed to do so with huge success throughout the history of the Church, and especially in our own times. It’s scandal.

 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says a very strange thing: “Blessed is the man who does not lose faith in me.” The original language actually says, “Blessed is the man who is not scandalized by me.” It’s also enigmatic that he would, to all intents and purposes, address this phrase to John the Baptist through the envoys he had sent to Jesus to ask him if he was the Messiah or had they to wait on someone else.

 

The Baptist was the “voice in the wilderness” who prepared the way of the Lord. His preaching was strong and forthright. His message was unambiguous: repent! His style was ascetic, almost “monastic.” He pulled no punches when it came to calling out the political establishment (recall his condemnation of Herod’s adultery) and the religious establishment (he calls the Pharisees and associates “a brood of vipers”). He was adored by the people who even thought he was himself the Messiah. But he was detested by those riled by his preaching and who wanted him dead. As we know, he ended up in prison as the result of the treachery of Herod’s adulterous wife. It is in prison that we find him in today’s Gospel.

 

The Gospel says almost innocuously that the Baptist sent envoys to Jesus with their question because of “what he (the Baptist) had heard Jesus was doing.” In other words, although the Baptist had witnessed to Jesus as the Lamb of God and had heard the voice of the Father confirm Jesus to be his Son at his baptism in the Jordan, what Jesus was now doing was causing the Baptist to doubt. Hence the question, “are you the Messiah or not?” So, what was Jesus doing exactly that the Baptist had begun to doubt?

 

We have to guess, but the Gospel itself gives us many clues. The Baptist’s message was repentance, yet he hears that Jesus is eating and drinking with sinners, has become a friend of harlots and tax collectors. The Baptist was a loud voice proclaiming the law of God, yet Jesus was the one of whom it was said “he did not cry out or shout aloud” and who seemed to violate the Sabbath and the Law. The Baptist expected Jesus to lay the axe to the root of the trees producing no fruit, to winnow the good from the evil, to preach and judge with fire and the Holy Spirit, yet Jesus teaches parables and mercy, he says to leave the wheat and the weeds together, not to judge lest ye be judged. Jesus speaks not of triumphant moral and political revolution, but of being rejected, crucified and killed.

 

Perhaps in prison, the Baptist had himself become despondent about his own fortunes since he might well have expected to have been, as he had said himself, the “bridegroom’s friend” who, along with Jesus the groom, would have overseen the change he had preached in the people and country of Israel. But instead he hears of a very different Messiah, one that makes him hesitate, doubt and perhaps even be tempted to fall. The word scandal means a stumbling block. For the Baptist, then, Jesus was becoming a scandal (as Simeon had prophesied he would).

 

Aware of what was going on in the Baptist’s heart and mind, Jesus performs miracles associated with the Messiah in the sight of the envoys of John to reassure them and him that he is indeed the Messiah. At the same time, Jesus does not renounce the kind of Messiah he was sent to be and intended to be. He both warns and encourages the Baptist: the encouragement is in the miracles; the warning is in the remark: “Blessed is the man who is not scandalized by me.” For, in fact, Jesus would become even more of a scandal to many, indeed to everyone, by the scandal of the Cross. Crucifixion was the most scandalous form of execution for the most reprobate of criminals. But Jesus knew it had to be this way for, despite John’s holiness and zeal, John could not possibly have grasped that the revolution Jesus would in fact carry out would be the destruction of death itself and of the sin which spawned it. That revolution would only be accomplished in humiliation and apparent defeat. Scandal would, however, lead to victory and to the healing of humanity and of the cosmos.

 

Does this mean that the devil was behind the scandal of Jesus, was somehow its architect and promoter? Yes and no. Yes, because it was by his devilment that humanity got into dire straits in the first place; and yes because he is always behind any humiliation of any human being, including therefore the humiliation of Christ. But no, he was not behind it in the sense that it was Christ who played and beat him at his own game, using the very scandal wanted by the devil to bring victory out of it.

 

If we look now at the scandals in the Church, those which existed historically and especially the scandal of clerical sex abuse today, these, too, emerged from the combination between the shenanigans of the tempter and the moral depravity of men. Apart from the havoc wrought in those materially involved in these scandals, the devil has also wanted them to serve as a decoy to distract people from the God-given ministry of the Church. There is no question that the demonic orchestration of these scandals, with alas the full cooperation and responsibility of those involved, has been intended not only to ruin the lives of those immediately affected but also to ruin the Church herself. Satan wants all of us in the Church to start feeling like the Baptist: doubtful, confused, discouraged, angry even. He wants us to give up. That’s his goal.

 

I ask you to consider my position for a moment. I was ordained 38 years ago, filled like everyone in my year with zeal and energy to serve God’s people with everything I had. Now, if I could get my hands on some of the abusers, I would be sorely tempted to throttle them! Why did they enter the ministry if they had these feelings and problems? Why did they not leave at the first sign they couldn’t control them? As it is now, we are all suspects in the eyes of the people. And if I were sitting where you are now, I might well be asking, “I wonder what he gets up to?” It’s difficult enough to live the priestly life when things around you are going well. But I would not blame any priest wholly innocent of any of these crimes from wondering, “do I really need all this stress and trouble? Why don’t I just throw in the towel and go and live a quiet life?”

 

But, of course, that’s precisely what the enemy of the Church wants! Whenever there is discouragement and dejection, these are the devil’s hallmark.

 

But we must not give up, neither you nor I. We must not be foolish and be decoyed into the loss of the Mystical Body of the Lord, the Church of Jesus Christ, one, holy, catholic and apostolic. We must not allow the depravity of the few to become the deprivation of the many. Why should we let the failure of some, no matter what their dignity and vocation in the Church might be, lead to the loss of the sacraments of eternal life and the Word of Truth for those who remain faithful? Let our anger and outrage be justly outpoured upon those who have betrayed their trust, but let them not then, by a perverse mistake, be poured out upon Christ himself. And you might answer: it’s not on Christ that we pour them out, but on the Church. Well, I will reply: the Church is the beloved bride of Christ, the mystical Body of which he is the Head. We cannot put asunder what he has joined.

 

Christ has already undergone rejection and humiliation on our behalf. Do we really want to reject and humiliate him again? We must not let the twistedness of the scandal-peddlers twist our Christian logic. If we reject the Church, the devil has won the star prize he was after! If we reject the Church, “to whom shall we go?” Where else are we to find the Eucharist, the comfort of absolution, the healing of anointing? Where else are we to find the truth that sets us free and the mysteries of salvation for which our deepest souls long? If we reject the Church we might find ourselves gradually walking into the arms of its true enemy. Our fight is not against flesh and blood, however weak and despicable it might become, but against the spirits of evil. Let not those spirits who tempted the depraved now conquer us by coming in through a different door, the door of apostasy and prevarication.

 

It goes further. Hard though it may be for us to see or even believe; incredible though it may sound; impossible though it seems: just as Christ used the scandal of the Cross to conquer sin and death, so he can also hijack this scandal and make it serve the purposes of his eternal love and mercy. The devil cannot outdo Christ in cunning. What the devil has concocted for the destruction of the Church, Christ can take and turn for the strengthening of the Church. Yes, a strengthening through purification and humiliation and downsizing, but a strengthening nonetheless.

 

The words of warning to the Baptist, then, become words of warning to us: Blessed is the one who is not scandalised by me, by my ability and will to turn even this scandal into grace and life and victory. The devil will not prevail against the Church. How can he? The Church belongs to Christ. It is an act of extreme folly, however clever and intrepid it may seem, to think you can take the Bride from the Bridegroom. It ain’t happening. Period.

 

So, then, are we to find joy in scandal? Of course not. But we are to find it as the result of the Lord’s faithful love. We are his Bride, no matter how weak or soiled or angry we become. He will cleanse us, strengthen us and pacify us. We must trust in him, in his Cross, in his victory. “For the joy which lay ahead, Jesus endured the ignominy of the Cross.” As did he, so must we. Let the clerical abuse scandal be dealt with thoroughly, promptly, fully, with all the means and laws at our disposal. Yes, indeed. But let us not fall into the devil’s trap by thinking that apostasy on our part will achieve anything. It won’t … other than letting old Fagan nick our salvation, the most precious jewel he has been eyeing all along.

 

So, I cry, “Gaudete” not “in scandalo” but “in Domino”! Rejoice, not in the moral misery and dross of human drudgery, but in the power of the Cross and of the One who is coming to deliver us and at whose sight there will be everlasting joy on our faces.

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