04 December 2016

Homily - The Second Sunday of Advent - 4 December 2016

The Second Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

In these days, we make use of the color violet – which we usually call purple – because of its long association with a spirit of repentance and royal majesty. Advent is marked by a joyful penitence because we await with eager expectation the coming of Christ our King. Our hearts are joyful because we know the Lord is coming again in his glory, yet our hearts are also filled with trepidation because “with the breath of his mouth he shall slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).

The Lord will not judge us as we so often judge others, which is cause for joy; he will not judge us on our appearance or on what others say about us, but on the measure of our love, which is cause for trepidation (cf. Isaiah 11:3). Justice shall indeed flourish in his days because he is himself the Sun of Justice, the Radiant Dawn to whom we look, “his dwelling shall be glorious,” and in his light all things will be revealed (cf. Malachi 3:20; Isaiah 11:3-10). This is why we must heed the words of the prophets Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist to “prepare the way of the Lord [and] make straight his paths” (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3).

We prepare his way when we repent, when we turn from our sins and turn again toward Christ. This is the very message of the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2)! The Baptizer does not make a mere suggestion, but speaks a word of command; he speaks in the imperative, saying, metanoeite, a word that means “to change one’s mind or perspective.” John “is calling for a complete change in thinking and conduct – [a] decisive, fundamental change of direction in one’s life.”[1]

Saint Bonaventure tells us John the Baptist “admonished us to prepare ourselves according to the threefold excellence of [Jesus’] qualities,” saying:

First because [Jesus] is the wisest master, we prepare ourselves as disciples longing to believe the master, who teaches through the submission of the intellect. Second, because he is the most powerful king we prepare ourselves as dutiful servants to obey the commander in carrying out actions. Third, because he is the most just judge we prepare us as penitent men to respond to the judge by correcting shortcomings.[2]

This is the proper task of these days of preparation for the great solemnity of Christmas; everything else is secondary.

The people responded in great numbers to John’s call to a complete turnaround in life because they recognized him not simply as a prophet, but as the prophet – indeed, the last of the prophets – who heralded the coming of God himself. They recognized this in three ways: in his preaching, in his clothing, and in his location.

In that passage gloriously rendered in Handel’s Messiah, Isaiah said, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah: ‘Behold your God’” (Isaiah 40:9)! When he pointed to the Lord Jesus near Bethany, John the Baptist cried out, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29)! He went on to say, “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34). The people also recognized the great prophet had come in Saint John’s clothing. They knew the great prophet Elijah “wore a garment of haircloth, with a belt of leather about his waist” (II Kings 1:8). The Lord God also revealed through his prophet Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5 [3:23]). Even the location of John’s preaching signaled a moment of great importance, for it was at the River Jordan that the Lord healed Naaman of his leprosy, where Elijah was taken up to heaven in the fiery chariot, and through which the Lord led his people after their wandering of forty years into the Promised Land (cf. II Kings 5:1-4, 2:1-11, and Joshua 3:1-17). Later in his ministry, Jesus made the connection between John the Baptist and the return of Elijah explicit when he said, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:13-14; cf. Matthew 17:10-13).

Recognizing the truth of John’s words, they streamed toward him to receive his baptism “as they acknowledged their sins” (Matthew 3:6). We, too, need to hear the call of the Baptist to acknowledge our sins and confess them to the Lord; we, too, need to repent and reorient our lives toward Jesus; we, too, need to make the decisive, fundamental change to believe, to serve, and to follow Jesus in all things. By doing so, we prepare the way for him and make our hearts worthy of becoming glorious dwellings for the Lord. We must remember that “if the way of interior dwelling is not prepared well, Christ will not come to us nor will we be able to meet Christ.”[3] We spend so much time and energy preparing to receive and welcome our family and friends into our homes, and rightly so; but how much more time and energy ought we spend preparing our souls to receive the Divine Guest!

We best prepare the home of our hearts for him by hastening to the confessional to make a good confession of our sins. When we do so, he removes whatever keeps us from him. In the honest and humble confession of sins, the Lord’s justice flourishes, his peace is felt, and we are strengthened by his love to “produce good fruit as evidence of [our] repentance” (cf. Psalm 72:7; Matthew 3:8). Beg the Holy Spirit, then, to help you examine your conscience, to reveal your sins to you, your failures to love, and to help you make a worthy confession of your sins; if you open your heart to his promptings, he will lead you to be reconciled to the Lord and to his Church so you can look with wonder upon the Face of him who is love together with all who are his friends. It is only when we are reconciled to the Lord and to one another that can we truly await the coming of the Lord with the joy and eagerness proper to this season of Advent.

A few days ago, I met with a young couple to begin preparing them for their marriage. At one point in our conversation, they asked if I would hear confessions after their wedding rehearsal. They asked this because they want to enter the sacrament of marriage cleansed of their sins to be able to reflect the love of Jesus to each other and to the world. It was a beautiful and humble request, one I will be very happy to honor. How I wish we would all imitate their example in these days of Advent to prepare our hearts to be worthy dwellings for the Lord when he comes!

Saint John warns us today that “even now the ax lies at the root of the trees” and that “every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down” (Matthew 3:10). A great error has emerged today and is present in the minds of too many people. This error says something like this: “God is great. He knows us, so sin does not count; in the end God will be kind to us all. It is a beautiful hope,” but it misses something rather important. It forgets that “both justice and true guilt exist. Those who have destroyed man and the earth cannot suddenly sit down at God’s table together with their victims. God creates justice. We must keep this in mind.”[4] We must remember that, as Pope Francis reminds us, “everyone, sooner or later, will be subject to God’s judgment, from which no one can escape.”[5] This is why Saint John warns us today that the Lord’s “winnowing fan is in his hand” (Matthew 3:12) and why he calls us to repent. His call to repentance is one of hope, because the same Lord who comes to “strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth” also comes with “faithfulness [as] a belt upon his hips” (Isaiah 11:5).

Let each of us, then, prepare the way of the Lord by entering the confessional to cast off all that is unworthy of Christ and so live fully, truly, and joyfully as we await the blessed coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, of him who is our only true and lasting hope. Amen.

[1] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, Catholic Commentary on Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 62.
[2] Saint Bonaventure, Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 7. In Works of St. Bonaventure: The Sunday Sermons of St. Bonaventure. Timothy J. Johnston, trans. (Saint Bonaventure, New York: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2008), 104.
[3] Saint Bonaventure, Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 11.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Rome, 7 February 2008.
[5] Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultus, 19.

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