A Homily for Gaudete Sunday
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4)
Let’s talk about hell.
But first, let’s talk about Jack Daniel, the famous whiskey distiller.
He is said to have died from gangrene resulting from a toe infection. Here’s a man who had all the money, fame, success and whiskey he could want, and he died a silly, stupid death.
As the story goes, he couldn’t remember the combination to his safe, and so he kicked it, injuring his big toe. It got infected. Eventually, they amputated his entire foot, but it was too late. The infection spread through his body, and he died.
Hold that thought, because we’re going to get back to it. I want to turn from Jack Daniel to John the Baptist, who says in today’s Gospel that Christ is coming, and that “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).
There it is, in the heart of what Luke calls “the Good News.” Christ is coming, but if we aren’t saved, we will suffer eternal hellfire.
We don’t like to talk about that much, and it’s true that it’s not the focus of our faith, but we shouldn’t ignore the reality of hell. Hell is, in a certain sense, tied to love. If you’ve ever been heartbroken, maybe you’ve had a tiny taste. You find a person, and think that you’ll only ever be happy if you’re with them. They go away, and you ache with pain. The more you love them and the more you need them, the harder it is when they’re gone.
So it is with God: He’s the source of all of our joy and happiness, and we need Him utterly, completely, infinitely. He’s the only one worthy to be loved with our entire heart, mind, and soul. If we really believe all of this, then we have to know that an eternity without Him would be the worst sort of existence imaginable. The Catechism says of the “eternal fire” mentioned in today’s Gospel that “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC 1035).
So why do I mention this on Gaudete Sunday, a day set aside to rejoice? Or why did the Church choose this Gospel for today? Why does St. Luke dare to call it Good News?
Because the disease of sin is curable, and the Divine Physician is at hand. These days, if you get an infection in your toe, you don’t need to die, or even to get your foot lopped off. Just put a little peroxide on it, and be about your business. And if you sin, you don’t need to suffer hellfire, you don’t even need to wear sackcloth and ashes. Just repent, turn back to Jesus, go to Confession, and be about your business.
Look at the specific instructions that John gives in today’s Gospel (Lk. 3:10-18). He says to the crowds, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” And to the tax collectors, considered amongst the worst of sinners, what does he tell them? “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” And to the soldiers: “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” There you go: simple instructions for Christian living. Give to the poor, don’t cheat, don’t lie, and be happy with what you’ve got. That certainly beats amputation or hell, doesn’t it?
Now, I’m not suggesting that you live in terror of hell, any more than you should live in terror of getting a toe infection. No, as Zephaniah says in today’s First Reading (Zep. 3:16-17), “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged” because “the LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior”!
Christ saves us. Christ saves us, but those words don’t mean anything unless we need saving. If we don’t know the awful truth about our sins, then we can’t see the beauty of our redemption.
That’s the source of our peace of mind. It’s not that sin doesn’t matter. It does. Sin is serious… but only if it’s left untreated. We have peace, we rejoice, because Christ is greater than our sins. He can cure us of the sickness of sin, and He can do it easily. He paid the price for those sins already, so there’s no use in you doing something stupid like going to hell for sins that are already paid for.
So no matter what you’ve done, no matter how boring or embarrassing you think your sins are, the solution is the same: turn away from those sins, turn to Jesus, and ask Him for forgiveness in Confession. That’s the source of peace: that He hears our prayers and our cries for forgiveness. As St. Paul says in the Second Reading (Phil. 4:6-7), “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
And so, as we turn towards Christ, as we let Him heal us of our sins, and let Him guard our hearts, and gather us together like wheat to take us to spend eternity with Him in Heaven, we should “rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”