Be Not Afraid! Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
The following homily was delivered at this morning’s 10:15 am Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral:
Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
God’s Holy Word, which we just heard, and the sermon that follows, are supposed to be good news.
Some days that’s tough to give, this good news and this is one of them, as we mourn the brutal and irrational execution of two young, promising and devoted police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu; as we tear-up thinking about their heartbroken families; as we are in solidarity with our police officers who experience a “death in the family;” as we worry about a city tempted to tension and division.
“Good news” might seem distant, difficult, even indiscrete, as we anticipate the joy of Christmas four days away, and feel more like we’re near Good Friday.
Never is the hope of the good news of God’s promise and fulfillment erased for a believer, and the more it is tested the stronger it gets: so, more than ever, “we need a little Christmas right this very moment!”
How providential: today, December 21st, is the darkest day of the year, the day of least light as the sun is at its lowest point.
Anthropologists tell us that our ancestors millennia ago were gripped with fear and anxiety on this day, wondering if the sun, the light, would reverse its descent and start back up into the sky, if the days would gradually get longer and the light more obvious.
Year after year they would hold their breath with fear, only to discover that, yes, tomorrow, the sun would be reborn, and start upward. No wonder every ancient civilization celebrated the “rebirth of the sun” the days after things looked scariest, the days after December 21st.
Fear became trust, as life and community went on, showing that nature and her God would always guarantee that light would conquer darkness.
No surprise that the Church would place the birth of the Son – S-o-n—right at the rebirth of the sun – s-u-n—and we have Christmas.
“The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light,” as we’ll hear proclaimed from Isaiah the Prophet at Midnight Mass.
At the darkest time of the night, near the darkest day of the year, Jesus the light of the world, was born in Bethlehem.
He will teach us gently and manifest radiantly in his own birth, life, death and resurrection that
light trumps darkness
hope beats despair
grace wins over sin
love defeats hate
life conquers death.
When we’re tempted to question that as stupid and silly, He whispers, “Be not afraid: Fear is useless! What is needed is trust!”
“Be not afraid!” Experts tell us it’s the most repeated exhortation in the Bible.
We hear it again this morning. Mary sees an angel who tells her, Be not afraid!” and invites her to a supreme act of faith in accepting God’s request that she be the mother of the Savior.
Fear; doubt; darkness; confusion; anxiety; — all flood Mary’s heart, yet she trusts, and she conceives a son who is to be the light of the world!
Yesterday afternoon, I arrived for Mass at St. Simon Stock Parish in the Bronx, about 4:15. There, as usual, were police officers assigned to cover the event. However, instead of their characteristically buoyant greeting, I found them somber and downcast. They then told me the chilling news of the execution of their two brothers.
The parish is right across from Precinct 46 headquarters, so I asked the officers to take me over. There I was able to spend time with thirty or so of them, meeting them, embracing them, trying to console them, praying with and for them. As you observed so well yesterday, Mayor de Blasio, it was for them, a “death in the family.”
Later, as I was stumbling through Mass in Spanish for that wonderfully faithful parish in that challenged neighborhood, I saw out of the corner of my eye, in a chapel off the side of the main altar, hidden from public view, two policemen, on their knees, hats on the floor, heads bowed, hands folded, before the Blessed Sacrament. I silently prayed that they heard those words deep down, “Be not afraid! I am with you!”
Commissioner Bratton, Chief O’Neill, would you tell your officers that God’s people gathered at St. Patrick’s this morning thundered with prayers for and with them, and that we love them, we mourn with them, we need them, we respect them, we are proud of them, we thank them!
I’ve learned in my six years here that, yes, New York, this huge, throbbing metropolis, can indeed be a place of hurt, darkness, fear, and fracture, that our celebrated grit and in-your-face realism can at times turn brash.
But I’ve also learned that New York can also be that “Little Town of Bethlehem,” from which comes, not darkness, division, and death, but light, unity, and life. That’s New York! That’s Bethlehem! That’s Christmas!