In November 2014, the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation national committee of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate organized and held a conference in Ottawa around the theme of ethical mining.
A highlight of this event was the presence of Gustavo Gutierrez, who is considered one of the fathers of liberation theology. He was the keynote speaker and received an honorary doctorate from Saint Paul University.
This event ties in with the Third Sunday of Advent and its theme of rejoicing in the Lord, or Gaudate Sunday. That theme of exultation, rejoicing and happiness flows especially from the first and second readings for today.
It is one of the teachings of Gutierrez that links this Sunday with the event in Ottawa. When he spoke at Newman Theological College years ago as part of the Bishop Anthony Jordan series of lectures, he gave North Americans some advice about possible motives for going to Latin America. If we were coming because we were angry at the injustices they were facing there, then don’t come, he stated, because they had enough angry people already.
If we wanted to come out of guilt at having so much when they have so little, then don’t come, he repeated, as they had enough guilty people already. However, if we wanted to come because we were grateful for all the blessings that God has given us, then come — they could always use more grateful people.
In a practical way, Gutierrez was underlining the theme of this Sunday — that a genuine life of faith in Jesus, concern for justice, and caring for especially the poor, will be characterized by joy.
Be happy, pray always, and be grateful because of the Lord, St. Paul is able to say in the second reading. Be open to the Spirit, and be holy, he adds, for God has called us to that.
Isaiah in the first reading is very much like Simeon in the gospel who, after he held the baby Jesus in his arms in the temple, rejoiced because he had seen the salvation of God. For his part, Isaiah exults and rejoices for the gift of salvation and integrity. He goes on to say that God will make integrity and praise spring up in the sight of all the nations, a suggestion that justice and joy go hand in hand.
Isaiah then goes on to speak prophetic words that Jesus would claim as his own in the synagogue at Capernaum: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me to proclaim Good News to the poor; to bind up broken hearts; to proclaim liberty to captives; to free prisoners; to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.”
It is interesting that the category of prisoners or captives is mentioned twice. Perhaps that is an allusion to the two kinds of bondage or captivity people at any stage of history or in any society experience for which they need release: unjust political imprisonment, and personal bondage to painful dark emotions such as anger and bitterness; negative attitudes such as false pride and stubbornness, or addictions, either to chemical addiction such as alcoholism, or process addictions such as gambling, pornography, power and control.
In the gospel we see the presence of especially the negative attitudes of false pride and stubborn self-righteousness in the person of the priests and Levites, and in the Pharisees who sent them, as soon as someone like John the Baptist appears, who might even hint at being a threat to the religious establishment.
Not only did they personify those negative attitudes with their refusal to believe in John or Jesus, whose way he was preparing; they also were addicted to power and control, and that was what they were so intent on preserving at all costs. That enslavement to suspicion, false pride, stubborn self-righteousness, and addiction to power and control, was precisely what Jesus came to free them from, had they only been more humble, able to repent and let John be who John said he was. Because they were not, they excluded themselves from any possibility of that joy and exultation Jesus came to give so freely to anyone who believed and followed him.
To those who genuinely believe in Jesus, who sincerely try to obey his commandments to love God, love others as he has loved us and as we love ourselves, and even love and forgive our enemies, there will always be the possibility of joy.
Recently a U.S. network did a 13-minute special on the Copts in Egypt. As a minority they have always faced some persecution for their faith, but recent years have been the worst. After their pope stood with the military during the uprising in Egypt, Muslim extremists went berserk and ransacked, burnt and destroyed dozens of Coptic churches, and there was no one to help them.
Media personnel later attended a large gathering of Copt faithful at one of the churches that was not damaged. They found no trace of retaliation, of a desire for revenge. Instead, one of the priests they interviewed calmly said that forgiveness was the core of Christianity, and that was what they have always lived, even to the point of martyrdom. And that, he pointed out, was the life of faith that they were living presently.
The Copts were just the opposite of the priests, Levites and Pharisees that John faced in the gospels, and with whom Jesus struggled so much, right up to his martyrdom on the cross. They were perhaps not exulting, but certainly, like Jesus on the cross, they were at peace, a peace only God can give.
The eucharist we celebrate now is itself an exultation, a moment of joyful celebration. May our celebration today strengthen our faith and empower us to be like Isaiah and the Thessalonians, able to exult, rejoice, be grateful and spread the Good News that Jesus has overcome death, darkness and evil in all its forms, and that we share in that final victory already through faith and love, despite any darkness around us.
Lavoie, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-The Pas, is chaplain at the Star of the North Retreat House in St. Albert, Alta. He continues to live out his motto, Regnum Dei Intra Vos (the kingdom of God is among you), which is his overriding focus and passion.