Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, 2013
Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever. This is the refrain for the Responsorial Psalm on this 2nd Sunday of Advent. And our readings this weekend encourage us to reflect on this aspect of the coming of the Messiah: the prophets promised that in him the injustice and violence, the corruption and greed that torment this world would finally be brought to an end. Isaiah’s prophetic words paint such a vivid picture of the radical peace and justice that God promised: the lion and the lamb lying down together, the child lying in the adder’s lair. This is not the image of a merely superficial tranquility, a kind of temporary truce. The prophets were united in signaling that the coming of the Christ would bring usher in a new era of peace, equity, and justice.
John the Baptist echoes this refrain: the coming of the Lord means justice, a clearing of the threshing floor, the wheat being gathered and the chaff burnt. The poor and lowly and downtrodden would find their reward in him, the greedy and authoritarian and violent their recompense.
Pope Francis made the news again recently with the new Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. I have been reading it, and I have also been reading what everyone has been saying about it. As you might have read, one of the things that got people going was the pope’s criticism of trickle-down economics and his general condemnation of the abuse of the free market.
What has been interesting is that people are responding to his words as if he has introduced something new – as if Christ did not have anything to say about the rich and the poor, about justice and equity, or at least as if the Church has never bothered to hand on these teachings until our current pope.
I do not have time, brothers and sisters – and nor would I want to bore you with endless citations – but let me be very clear on this point: you cannot speak about the role or mission of the Messiah without speaking of social justice. Christ clearly came to bring justice, and clearly came to bring justice for those who are most in need of it: the poor and downtrodden. That is why there has been a clear, uninterrupted, and virtually unanimous line of social justice teaching in the Church for 2000 years.
In the modern era, this teaching has become all the more clear. Beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum which was promulgated in 1891 and continually affirmed by our bishops and popes to the present day, our faith has consistently and clearly voiced the teaching of Christ: that the work of increasing his kingdom on earth is a work of spreading his justice and peace for all people. This teaching was confirmed again 40 years later by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno and reaffirmed in a particularly authoritative way in the second Vatican council document Gaudium et Spes. Recent Popes have continued in the same line of thought: Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, John Paul II in the encyclical Centessimus Annus, and Pope Benedict in his encyclicals Deus Caritas Est and Caritas et Veritate. Now we hear the same thing from Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium. I cite all of these Latin titles to make the point that Pope Francis is not teaching anything that is new or outside of the magisterial tradition of the Church in his recent document.
Recent commentary by pundits and even professional journalists reveals that either so few have bothered to familiarize themselves with the teachings of Christ and his Church, or that their efforts are really directed toward advancing their own agendas, rather than accurate reporting. The recent media furor over the Pope’s comments about economic justice, and in particular just one or two lines of an incredibly long document, is overblown, superficial, and divisive. Predictably so much of the commentary has fallen into two traps into which I fear many Catholics may inadvertently also be drawn. The traps represent two extremes that Christ sought to avoid and that the Church has worked to navigate since the beginning.
The one extreme is the interpretation of Christ’s messianic work in an exclusively political sense, as if he were merely seeking to reform earthly structures and bring about earthly justice. In responding to Pope Francis, some have really pushed toward this extreme – speaking of the liturgy, prayer, beauty, truth, as if the Pope’s words in support of social justice relegate the areas of life that point us to the transcendent to the category of the superfluous and distracting. Some have also tried to use the Pope’s words as an endorsement of whatever social agenda that they might have, or whatever policy that they think needs to be put in place, or whatever governmental organization they think needs to be built up. As if the Pope were primarily concerned about politics, policies, and social agendas, or as if he did not care about prayer, beauty, and the truth. It is as if they have forgotten that the title of his Apostolic Exhortation is Evangelii Gaudium, “The Gospel of Joy.” It is a document about the New Evangelization. His goal, Pope Francis says again and again in its pages, is to bring our world to an authentic encounter with the person of Christ. Christ is the Justice we seek – he and he alone can bring about the fullness of justice that we need.
Again and again Pope Francis reminds us, as Christ told us himself: the Kingdom of Christ is not a kingdom of this world, it is not another NGO. To carry out our efforts to advance social justice in a purely horizontal way, along merely economic and socio-political lines, is to hijack the work of Christ in an attempt to make it our own. History has shown that when we try to supplant the kingdom of heaven and its justice with earthly governments and policies and movements we create monstrous idols that inevitably oppress and enslave us.
The Christian answer to trickle-down economics is not a socialistic theocracy. If that were the answer, Christ would have founded one himself and taken his seat on its throne. What Christ seeks is the conversion of the private and public, corporate and civil orders so that all spheres of human life operate in harmony with one another according to God’s justice, a justice that transcends any institution or enterprise.
On the other hand we find the extreme of those who act as if the Gospel had nothing to do with social justice. They have criticized the Pope’s discussion of economic injustice as if he were speaking outside of his area of competency or introducing some novelty. What, do they want him to just talk about angels and holy oil all day, as if the Gospel did not have repercussions on day to day life?
Further, some have reacted to his statements as if he were some kind of leftist or socialist by saying that the rich have an obligation to help the poor, that the healthy have an obligation to help the sick, that the well fed have an obligation to help the starving. Do they not recall the words of our Lord “When I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me to drink, when I was sick you visited me”? It is not socialism to recognize that we have a social responsibility for one another – that is the Gospel. And it is not socialism to insist that all orders of life: private, public, corporate, and civil – be carried out in justice and with a deep concern for the needs of the poor and marginalized. That is the Gospel. As much as it is true that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, we cannot live in this world as if God’s kingdom and his justice have not come to earth. Christ is the promised Messiah. He is fully divine, but he is also fully human. As members of his body we have the responsibility to seek and to serve his justice in the establishment of a kingdom that is at the same time both human and divine.
No one knew this better than Our Lady. The solemnity of her Immaculate Conception has been moved this year – we do not celebrate it today on the 8th, but on the 9th. But on this 2nd Sunday of Advent let us recall Mary’s prayer as she rejoiced that God's promise of justice would be fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven through her Son:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.