“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” (40,1). We cannot be messengers of God's consolation if we do not experience first the joy of being consoled and loved by Him.With these words, the Holy Father reminds us that Advent is a time of great comfort, a time when we are consoled by the Lord. Another consolation, the Holy Father says, is the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. He prayed on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception:
"Knowing that you, who are our Mother, are totally free from sin, is of great comfort to us. Knowing that evil has no power over you, fills us with hope and strength in the daily struggle we have to face against the threats of the evil one."
Mary is, Comfort of the afflicted. We her children, having been consoled by her, become ready share her tender kindness with the afflicted, the poor, the distressed, and those who, for whatever reason, are lost and not capable of drawing near to the consolation that God gives. God seeks the lost sheep. In the Gospel for today we read:
This is an Advent Gospel. It should be read differently than we normally read it. It is supposed to help prepare us for the coming of the Lord, so that Christ may be born into our hearts at Christmas in a way we have never known him before. If we work to level the mountains of our own self will, we prepare room for God to fill up our valleys.Jesus said to his disciples:“What is your opinion?If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hillsand go in search of the stray?And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over itthan over the ninety-nine that did not stray.In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Fatherthat one of these little ones be lost.”
One of the mountains in the Church today that needs leveling, is the spirit of triumphalism, the preaching to the choir, to cater to a select group who "get it" and spend our time patting ourselves on the back. It is not an exclusive club for the found, a place where we sit comfortably with the one found sheep. Pope Francis, speaking to a gathering for the diocese of Rome said,
"In this culture — let us tell the truth — we only have one, we are a minority! And do we feel the fervour, the apostolic zeal to go out and find the other 99? This is an enormous responsibility and we must ask the Lord for the grace of generosity, and the courage and patience to go out, to go out and preach the Gospel. Ah, this is difficult. It is easier to stay at home, with that one sheep! It is easier with that sheep to comb its fleece, to stroke it... but we priests and you Christians too, everyone: the Lord wants us to be shepherds, he does not want us to fuss with combing fleeces! Shepherds! And when a community is withdrawn, always among the same people who speak, this community is not a life-giving community. It is barren, it is not fertile. The fecundity of the Gospel comes through the grace of Jesus Christ, but through us, our preaching, our courage, our patience."
Pope Francis is trying to do this in the Church, to make it a Church for the lost, a home for the 99 lost sheep. Yet there are "found sheep" within the Church resisting, or perhaps we should call these what they are, unsheperdable goats. Are you a goat? Do you have a problem with the shepherd doing this? Got mountains that need leveling? This is the work of God right now in the Church, and he will never be able to fill up the rather huge valley where the lost sheep have strayed if the found don't get rid of their mountains of pride.
God is good, and in his goodness comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. We may be in need of a very deep shift of our attittude. It perhaps might be more than some of us can handle. This is true especially for those who struggle with hope, who have trouble seeing God working in the Church today, who think everything is falling apart.
A survival reaction is to withdraw into a fortress, to regroup and take shelter in an attitude that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, so I want to distance myself from it, even distance myself from the lost sheep, or yes, even the "lost shepherds," those Church leaders who seem to don't focus on how lost everyone is or how bad everything is, but are trying different ways to comfort the many afflicted souls, the 99 lost sheep instead of the 1 who is comfortable in their fortress.
Let us hear God calling us to seek the lost. This is what can save the found, can redirect them, can humble them. When the Church focusses all its strength at doing what it is supposed to, to be a hospital for sinners, a refuge for the weary, and a consolation for the afflicted, it is then Christ can be born in her, placed in her like the poor manger that she is, fit to hold the King of kings, amidst the rejection, the coldness, the darkness of this world. There in spiritual Bethlehem, accompanied by Immaculate Mary, good St Joseph, and the host of angels, she shall sing a new song to the Lord, "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those of good will."
May Mary, the Immaculate Conception, in her great gentleness, comfort the afflicted, and in her great gentleness, afflict the comfortable, that Christ truly may be born in the Church in a new way this Christmas.