One of the sins the Bible singles out for condemnation is grumbling. This might surprise us, especially today when complaining has become such a standard part of our lives. In fact, many people consider criticism to actually be a virtue, "After all, how will things get better if I do not point out what is wrong?" There may be some truth in that, but still we have to face the fact that the Scriptures are quite harsh against grumblers.
It was grumbling which brought God's wrath on the people of the Old Testament when they were in the desert. With our typical ability to forget the bad and remember the good, they longed for their old life in Egypt. They forgot the forced labor and only thought of the rich foods. They complained to Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this wilderness?...we loathe this worthless food." (Num. 21:5) We perhaps smile when we hear this because it has a familiar ring.
It is common enough to complain, but at a certain point it becomes destructive. That is why James warns us today, "Do not grumble against one another, my brothers." And he adds something which should make us stop and think, "lest you be condemned." In other words, the standard used for our personal judgment will be the words we use in judging our fellows. You can picture judgment day as follows: A video replay of you or me complaining sarcastically about something some other guy has done. "Imagine the nerve of that jerk. What a two-faced, lazy, lying bum!" Then follows a second video of me doing what I have condemned--or worse.
Do not grumble, my brothers, lest you be condemned. What is the alternative to complaining? The readings this Sunday suggest a couple of things. First, patience. "Be patient...see how the farmer waits..." (James 5:7) A third century Church father named Tertullian considered patience to be the supreme Christian virtue. He knew its importance because he himself was the most restless of men. He became so fed up with the slowness and sinfulness of the Church, that he wound up joining a rigoristic, millenarian sect. But while he was a Catholic he wrote movingly about the importance of patience. He pointed out how it involves denying some immediate gratification for the sake of a greater good. That is the heart of daily Christian living.
Let me give an example of patience. I knew a man who was sick of his job, especially the way his boss treated him. He felt unappreciated, used. One day he made up his mind he was going to tell his boss just what he thought of him and what he could do with the job. He daydreamed about how great he would feel letting him have it, then walking out, slamming the door behind him. Just as he was ready to go in another thought struck him. He remembered his wife, his children, the fact he had no other job to fall back on. He sacrificed his immediate gratification for the sake of a greater good. That is what is called patience. It does not mean we become the world's doormats. But it does mean we take seriously Jesus' words, "Whoever wishes to be my disciple must take up his cross every day and follow me."
Patience often involves restraining our tongue. Someone observed, "If you keep your mouth shut, no one will ask you to explain what you said." There is of course a time to speak up, but most of have more regrets about the things we have said than about those we didn't. Patience is the operative virtue here.
Besides patience we are called to seek another virtue--or to put it better, another gift. It is joy. This Sunday we lit the third candle of our Advent wreath. Its rose color symbolizes rejoicing. The first reading tell of a joy which will make sorrow and mourning flee. (Is 35:10) We need that especially this time of year--not just because of the short, rainy days, but also because the emptiness of our consumer society can make us feel sad. You know, it is geared for just that. People buy unnecessary things because they feel sad--and think that some purchase will pick them up. It is a trap like alcohol or sex--some immediate stimulation followed by a let-down. Joy is the opposite: a temporary suffering followed by peace.
A beautiful example of joy is someone whom Pope John Paul recently beatified. We know him as Juan Diego, the name he received when he was baptized. He was a widower, 58 years old, who had been married to a woman called María Lucía. Their deep sadness was that they had no children. Juan Diego dedicated himself to caring for his sick uncle Juan Bernardino. When he went to seek help for his uncle, the Virgin Mary appeared to him and left her image on his tilma or cloak. That of course was a singular joy. But I would like to focus on what he did afterwards. He first step was to divest himself of what little property he had. He gave his small plot of land to his uncle and went to live in a room next to the chapel where the tilma was displayed. He stayed there for the rest of his life--almost seventeen years till his death on May 30, 1584. You can imagine children coming to this childless man to hear about the Lady. When he was not telling what happened, he was in prayer. He went to confession regularly and attended daily Mass. He obtained a special permission to receive communion three times a week, something rare at that time.
Besides all that he had a great joy--one which you and I can also have. He meditated on the lovely gift of Jesus before he died--he gave us his own mother. (Jn 19:27) Juan Diego contemplated her image on the tilma. The black ribbon under her folded hands indicates she is pregnant. The child within her is of course Jesus whom she bring to the people of this continent--and to you and me. He is the font of all patience--and all rejoicing.
From Archives (Third Sunday of Advent, Year A):