Homily for an Advent Penance Service
The warning of Saint John the Baptist is clear and direct. “Produce good fruit,” he says, “as evidence of your repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
There is, then, first of all, a presupposition that one has indeed come to an acceptance of the need for repentance. Second, there is a presupposition that one has actually repented. And, third, there is the presupposition that one desires to continue in this life of repentance.
That there is a need for repentance should be apparent to each of us, otherwise we would not have come this night to be reconciled to the Lord. We have heard the words of the Baptist resound in our hearts: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10).
Saint John Chrysostom explored the meaning of this ax laid to the root when he said:
He did not merely say that the axe was barely ‘touching the root’ but ‘laid to the root’ – it is poised right next to it and shows no sign of delay. Yet even while bringing the axe so near, he makes its cutting depend upon you. For if you turn around and become better persons, this axe will be laid aside without doing any harm. But if you continue in the same ways, it will tear up the tree by its roots. So note well that the axe is neither removed from the root nor too quickly applied to cut the root. He did not want you to become passive, yet he wanted to let you know that it is possible even in a short time to be changed and saved (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew, 11.3).Looking as we do in these days of Advent for the glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ, we know these words to be true.
We know that when he comes he will have “his winnowing fan in his hand” and we do not want to be fanned away from his presence; we want to be gathered into his barn (Matthew 3:12).
To have arrived at such a point is to admit that what the Lord says through his prophet Malachi is true: “you have turned aside from statutes, and have not kept them” (Malachi 3:7). We know that in one way or another we have been “cowards, the unfaithful, the depraved, murderers, the unchaste, sorcerers, idol-worshippers, and deceivers of every sort” (Revelation 21:8). Tonight we have come because we know ourselves to be sinners.
Even so, this very night the Lord sends his messenger to us to prepare his way, that we might be led to a deeper sorrow for our sins, for as he says, “I will draw near to you for judgment” (Malachi 3:5).
With the Psalmist, then, we humbly ask the Lord, “Will you be ever angry with us, prolonging your anger to all generations? Will you not instead give us life; and shall not your people rejoice in you” (Psalm 85:6-7)? In his merciful love, he says to us, “Return to me, and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7).
These words, “return to me” lie at the heart of what it means to heed the call of the Baptist to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2)!
So do you want the kingdom of heaven to also be near for you? Prepare these ways in your heart, in your sense and in your soul. Pave within you the way of chastity, the way of faith and the way of holiness. Build roads of justice. Remove every scandal of offense from your heart. For it is written: ‘Remove the stones from the road.’ And then, indeed, through the thoughts of your heart and the very movements of your soul, Christ the King will enter along certain paths (Chromatius, Tractate on Matthew 8.1).Let us, then, go to meet the Lord in the great Sacrament of Penance. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten our hearts that we might make a worthy confession of our sins. Let us beg the Lord’s forgiveness, that as we prepare to celebrate the Birth of the Lord, we might truly produce good fruit as evidence of our repentance for the rest of our days: lives imbued with the love of the One who is coming.