Rejoice to Be Patient: Gaudete Sunday Sermon
We can probably be quite confident that no one has ever rejoiced at the chance to be patient. Yet, on this Gaudete Sunday, when the Church invites us to rejoice at the nearness of the coming of the Lord, She also encourages us to be patient.
We hear from the letter of St. James: “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it … You too must be patient.” How can we rejoice and be patient at the same time?
At the same time, we also see an example of seeming impatience from John the Baptist. The one who heralded the Messiah’s coming, who acclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” now sends his followers to ask the Lord, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Has John grown impatient, waiting in Herod’s prison for his judgment? How could one who just last week seemed so confident about the imminent coming of the Messiah, and protested that he was not worthy to baptize the Lord, now seem so uncertain?
It is quite possible that John sends his disciples not because of his doubts and impatience, but because of theirs. We can imagine that they have been pestering him: “We know that you said He was the one, but are you really sure? He hasn’t overthrown the Romans or done what the Messiah is supposed to do!” Perhaps he is tired of their questions and doubts and tells them, “Go ask Him yourselves!”
Whatever the reason for their questions, Christ does not give them any easy answers. He gives them the evidence they need, if they know the Scriptures well, to draw the right conclusions. Each of the miracles he points to fulfills one of the prophecies of the Messiah.
Clearly, though, they do receive a lesson in patience. We ought to be clear, though, that when the Scriptures speak of “patience,” they do not just mean the virtue of being a good waiter. This patience is a lot more active than passive. Look at St. James’s example of the patient man: “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” Farmers do not merely put seeds in the ground and then sit back and relax until the grain appears. Farming is hard work throughout the year. The good farmer must tend the plants and the soil, ensuring that the plants are growing properly and that he is ready for the harvest. This patience is very active indeed.
“Patience,” then, rather than being good at waiting, is the virtue that disposes us to bear present evils with calmness and composure. The patient person does not merely wait for present evils to go away. She resists them and works to mitigate their effects. But she does so with calmness and composure.
This is why the Scriptures tells us that we must wait for the Lord with hearts that are firm. St. James again tells us, “Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” Or the Psalmist: “Be stouthearted and wait for the Lord.” Or the beautiful words of today’s Communion antiphon: “Say to the faint of heart: Be strong and do not fear. Behold, our God will come, and he will save us.”
Having hearts that are firm, though, seems odd, because we recall the many warnings in the Scriptures against hardness of heart. The original meaning of the word that is being translated as “firm” also means “rightly ordered.” A heart that is firm is not easily swayed. It knows that it is set upon the right path. Just as we saw on Thursday, celebrating the Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Conception, that Her heart was perfectly ordered by its complete openness to God’s grace, so does the person who is stouthearted have a heart whose desires and passions are rightly ordered, moved by the ordering power of God’s love.
Being patient and waiting for the Lord, then, is also tied to the virtue of courage. Interestingly, the philosophers and theologians see patience as a part of the virtue of courage, with that more active conception of patience that we just saw. Courage moderates our fear of danger, helping us find the middle ground between not enough fear of danger (rashness or recklessness) and too much fear of danger. The latter is the vice of pusillanimity – smallness of soul. This is the word translated by “faint of heart” in the Communion antiphon.
Notice something important here, though: Having the virtue of courage does not mean that fear simply goes away. Rather, it means that we react correctly to it. There is good reason to fear, though, that the virtue of courage is severely undervalued by our modern world.
The classic example of courage was warfare. A courageous knight could make all the difference on the battlefield. A vastly outmanned army might still find victory if their hearts were firm. Nowadays, though, warfare has been technologized. We praise still the sacrifice of our men and women defending our country, but the decisive factor in who wins the victory is much more likely to be technical prowess and weaponry rather than gallant valor, the greatness of soul exhibited by a Lancelot or an Aragorn.
Likewise, the lack of courage is everyday life is notable. Recklessness is rampant in the use of illegal drugs, in which people lack an appropriate fear of the harm they will do to themselves and others through their destructive behaviors. Or in those who discount the damage that pre-marital cohabitation will do to their future marriages. But an even greater danger, I would assert, is present in the vice of defect of courage, pusillanimity. A few weeks ago I saw a license plate that read, “I CANNOT.” Isn’t that the motto of our age? “I just cannot.” I cannot be bothered to leave my house, I cannot summon enough energy to care one way or another, and I cannot understand why anyone would. I. Just. Cannot.
Brothers and sisters, Christ needs Christian men and women who will courageously combat the spirit of “I cannot,” who exude true firmness of heart. We need men and women who will moderate the fear of the unknown present beyond their doors and beyond their comfort zones. Now more than ever, it is not Christian faith that threatens to turn men and women into small-souled goody-two-shoes church mice, but the way of the world that produces empty shells of men without character, their personalities liquefied by rays of blue light.
The movement from rejoicing to firmness of heart present in today’s Mass culminates in that beautiful Communion antiphon we will hear: “Dicite pusilanimes … Say to the faint of heart, be strong and not fear. Behold, our God will come, and He will save us.” It is no accident that Holy Mother Church chooses that moment for these thrilling words, because at that very moment our hearts possess the reason for our hope. It is Christ present in the Eucharist who can ennoble our faint and small hearts to be courageously patient.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
11 December, A.D. MMXXII