When the prophet Isaiah announces “the year of the Lord’s favor” in our first reading today, it was a call that would have strongly resonated in the hearts of the people of Israel. That call reminded them of the instructions that God gave them through Moses, that every fiftieth year, a trumpet would sound throughout the land, initiating a year of “Jubilee”, during which prisoners and Jewish slaves were to be set free, debts pardoned, and land returned to its former owners.
Why this would have resonated with them was because they had just returned from fifty years of exile to a land and a capital city devastated and plundered by their enemies, who had now been defeated by God. God was proclaiming that, after their time of exile, during which they experienced God’s chastisement on them for their repeated sins, they were now entering into a season when God was going to shower favor on them instead. They had been prisoners and slaves in Babylon, now they were set free; the debt of their sin had been pardoned by God, and now their homeland, taken from them by the Babylonians, was being restored to them. Jubilee indeed!
I don’t know whether or not, or how much, the Jewish people still celebrate Jubilee these days, but the Catholic Church has taken over the idea of Jubilee and declared certain years as special years to be celebrated. The last such one, declared by Pope St John Paul II, was, appropriately enough, in the year 2000, the beginning of a whole new millennium for the Church and the world. (Three years preparation) The Pope, in the spirit of the original Jubilee, actually suggested that the richest nations pardoned the debts of the twenty poorest nations in the world, and I believe that this idea was carried out to a certain extent.
Why does the Church bring forward the idea of Jubilee again, on this third Sunday of Advent? Because what Isaiah prophesied to the people of Israel 2500 years ago, was a prefiguring of what would come to pass, initially when Jesus was born 2000 years ago, and what will come to pass in all its fullness at a future time, when Christ returns again, a time which we are not given to know, but which will certainly happen .
Two thousand years ago when Jesus entered into the world, his coming was a gift from God, a sign of his renewed favor on the world, and a blessing to the human race. The birth of the Christ was like a huge trumpet call of Jubilee to the world. You remember what the angel said to the shepherds watching their flocks that night:
“Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Christ, the Lord.”Luke 2: 10 – 11
What that angel, and all the other angels who appeared to the shepherds, praising God and saying, was declaring was the message “Rejoice!! This is the time of Jubilee!”
“Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”Luke 2: 13
But hold on a moment.
How was the birth of Jesus a time of Jubilee?
Where were the prisoners who would be released, whose debts would be pardoned, and what about land being restored to the original owners?
And for that, we need to look ahead to the end of Jesus’ life on earth, his death on the cross and his resurrection three days later – in other words to the events of Holy Week and Easter, which we also celebrate as a time of Jubilee. What was brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection? This is the core of our faith as Catholic Christians, brothers and sisters, so let us remind ourselves.
At the cross, says St Paul in his letter to the Colossians:
“When we were dead in our sins..God made us alive, forgiving our sins, erasing the record of debt that stood against us by nailing it to the cross.”Colossians 2:13 – 15
In the Bible, “debt” is often used as a synonym for sin, so by his death, Jesus “paid” off that debt for us. Furthermore, in his death and resurrection, so the book of Hebrews tells us, Jesus,
“destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”Hebrews 2: 14-15
One more quotation, this time from Jesus himself:
“Everyone who commits sin is a slave. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; but the son has a place there forever. So if I, the Son of God makes you free,you will be free indeed.”John 8: 34-36
Put all this together, and what do we have? We have prisoners and slaves of sin released from their slavery , people under debt to sin, a debt far too great for them to be able to pay it themselves, being set free from that burden, and a world exiled from heaven, now being given the chance to return home. And that is our reality, brothers and sisters, and why we should rejoice this day, and why we should celebrate Christmas for what it truly is, not an excuse for a party and a couple of days off work, but as a real Jubilee of freedom and joy.
I say “should” advisedly, because sadly, there are so many Catholics who know all of this in their heads as catechism answers, but for whom the reality has not penetrated their hearts. I see it in Catholics who no longer come to Mass because it is “boring” and meaningless, and no longer come to confession, because “what is the point, since I know I am only going to come out and confess those same sins over again.”. I see it in Catholics who are, “paralyzed” with fear over the Covid virus, not just prudently wary or sensibly taking necessary precautions, but literally “paralyzed” with fear, because they might die, or their family members might die, and they no longer believe in, or are not really sure they believe in, heaven and everlasting life any more. If they do believe in heaven, they think they are not worthy of going there, because of their past and present sins.Isee Catholics for whom fear and anxiety and dull resignation to their fate is a crippling disease.
I know those doubts and fears, believe me, brothers and sisters, and I am not the one to point any fingers and judge, because I was where they were once a time. Brought up Catholic all my life, but imprisoned by fear of death and going to hell, because of my sins, miserable and fearful, I certainly never found in my faith any reason for joy and hope. Years of “Rejoicing” Sundays and Easter “Jubilees” passed me by without effect, because I did not know what my faith as a Catholic was all about.
For those who know my story, it was a Protestant Christian who evangelized me at university, taught me the gospel as the “good news” of salvation that it was always meant to be, and helped bring my faith in Jesus alive. What I saw in this Christian man, and in the other Christians he introduced me to, was a great and serene joy, that spoke of their inner freedom from fear and condemnation, a joy and a peace that I so much yearned for.
They revealed to me the very truths that I have just passed onto you, that I didn’t know because I never read the Bible. I never knew before that Jesus said,
“Anyone who hears my word and believes …has eternal life; they do not come under judgement but have already passed from death to life.”John 5:24
Or that St Paul himself had once known my own fear of condemnation for my sins, before he came to faith in Jesus Christ:
“I am captive to the law of sin. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this death?”Romans 7: 23 – 24
And to the truth that:
“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us from the law of sin and death.”Romans 8: 1-2
When I came to know and believe, really believe from my heart, these truths, the darkness lifted, the joy and peace of God flooded my inmost being, and I was truly set free.
Many Catholics do not seem to know the gospel. They know the gospel stories, the stories in the “gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John”. But they don’t know the gospel as what it literally means, as “good news.” For many of them, it is no longer news, and they cannot see why it is “good” anyway.
So if I seem to be always banging on about the same thing, brothers and sisters, in my homilies, namely, the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus, it is because I want those who don’t know it as “good” news, and as “news,” to know it and to have the same Jubilee experience as I had, going from darkness to light, from fear to faith, from death to everlasting life.
A wise priest told me when I first came to St Philip’s and St Clare’s , and didn’t know what my mission was here, he told me that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Advice which I have valued and followed ever since.
So here is the main thing, brothers and sisters: every Mass is essentially a proclamation, a trumpet call of “Jubilee”, announcing to us the good news that, through faith in Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection, you and I come from condemnation to salvation. We do not have to let fear and anxiety, doubt and despair determine our lives, but allow Jesus to be Lord of our lives instead. When we receive Jesus into our hearts, through the reading of his Word, and through holy communion, and the other sacraments, especially the sacrament of reconciliation, with understanding of just who it is that we are receiving, Jesus will set us free from all that holds us in slavery to sin and fear of death and hell.
So today can be a truly a day of Jubilee, a day of real rejoicing, for you.