The Third Sunday of Advent (B)
Dear brothers and sisters,
The character of Saint John the Baptist is a curious one, both in our day and in his own. The intriguing quality of this simple man, which has attracted the attention of kings as well as peasants down through the centuries, is not principally concerned with his clothing and diet (Mark 1:6). Indeed, under normal circumstances, the figure of the Forerunner of the Lord would be regarded as something of a madman, yet we do not think of him as such. Why? We are drawn to him because of the way he does not think of himself.
When the priests and Levites of the Old Covenant asked him pointedly, “Who are you?”, he spoke not of himself but of the one whose way he came to prepare (John 1:19). Whereas any one of us might well answer this question by speaking of ourselves, Saint John answered simply, “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:20). Twice more he would not speak of himself; he spoke only in reference to those he knew to be greater than himself by again saying he was not them (cf. John 1:21). Finally, and likely with some exasperation, they asked him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us” (John 1:22)? These were men with a mission, a mission they intended to fulfill. Yet still he would not answer them. “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert,’” he riddled them, quoting the prophet Isaiah, ‘“Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23; cf. Isaiah 40:3).
John’s customary way of speaking of himself was to speak always instead of the Messiah. Many today would likely consider his refusal to answer about himself something akin to impertinence, but it instead demonstrates the depth of his humility. In an age of ever-increasing – and even unrecognized - self-absorption, the witness of Saint John the Baptist shines as a great light upon our present day. It is a curious, thing, that Saint John the Evangelist says, “He was not the light, but came to testify to the light,” yet the Lord Jesus calls the Baptist “a burning and shining lamp, and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light” (John 1:8; 5:35). What are we to make of this seeming contradiction?
This was a question with which the great Saint Augustine wrestled. Noting that the Lord Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), our heavenly patron said Jesus is a light “in comparison with which a lamp is not a light.” He went on to say that Saint John the Baptist “recognized himself as a lamp, in order not to be blown out by the wind of pride.” John, then, was a lamp because of his humility through which he sought “to testify to the light,” yet in comparison with Jesus, he was no light at all (John 1:8).
Jesus says of his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Today, then, we must ask ourselves if we, like Saint John the Baptist, could be described by the Lord as burning and shining lamps. Let us for a moment consider our souls as ancient lanterns, with a candle in the center surrounded by four panes of glass. On the day of our Baptism, the flame of faith was entrusted to us, symbolized by the Baptismal candle lit from the Paschal Candle. At that time, the priest or deacon said to our parents and godparent:
…this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. He is to walk always as a child of the light. May he keep the flame of faith alive in his heart. When the Lord comes, may he go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.
Do we always walk as children of the light? Is the flame of faith alive in our hearts? Does the light of Christ shine out from us? Do our lives burn for Jesus, or for ourselves?
Returning to our analogy, if the panes of glass that keep the lantern’s flame safe from the winds are kept clean, the light from the candle shines forth brightly, illuminating all around it. But if the panes of glass are not cleaned, they quickly become covered with soot, the light is diminished, and what was once illumined by its light becomes shrouded in darkness. And if the panes are broken, the flame is blown out. So it is with us.
If our sins are allowed to cover the panes of our soul, the flame of faith entrusted to us cannot shine forth, it cannot illuminate our life or the lives of those around us. But if we allow the Lord to wipe our panes clean with the words of absolution, our light - His Light - shines brightly through us as our lives resemble the life of Jesus Christ ever more closely.
How long has it been since we allowed the Lord to be, as it were, the window washer of our souls? Too often we stay away from the confessional because we have closed our ears to the call of Saint John the Baptist to “make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23) and his proclamation of a “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). We say “I’m a good person” and “I haven’t killed one” and “I haven’t robbed a bank” and think that is sufficient enough to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. It isn’t. Jesus does not call us to decent and polite people; he calls to be saints, to be holy, to be set apart for him.
Pope Francis reminded us last week that ”the quality of a Christian life is measured by the capacity to love.” Indeed, it might rightly be said, that when comes down to it, a sin is a failure to love God and neighbor. We can, of course, fail to love in ways both large and small, in things we have done, and in things we have not done. Naturally enough, we can only recognize our sins, our many failures to love, if the wind of pride has not been allowed to touch the light that comes from Christ and if we have kept the panes of souls at least somewhat clean.
Tomorrow evening we will have the opportunity to approach the merciful Lord in the Sacrament of Penance, which today is more commonly simply called Confession or Reconciliation. This Sacrament is called Confession because that is what happens. The penitent confesses the sins he or she has committed in kind and in number, as best as can be recalled. It is also called Penance, because a penance is given to the penitent as a means of demonstrating sorrow for his or her sins and as a way to try to make right what was made wrong, however large or small the penance may be. This Sacrament is also called Reconciliation because through it we are reconciled with God and with one another. Through it, we are able to raise our eyes to God and to look each other in the eyes again because he removes whatever obstacles we have placed between us. Above all, it is a blessed opportunity for us to present ourselves to the Lord and allow him to cleanse our souls from our sin.
When our failures to love are great and numerous, the flame of faith cannot burn brightly in our hearts and the light of Christ cannot shine clearly out from us onto the world. Therefore, in these remaining days of Advent, let each of us examine our consciences. Let us ask the Lord Jesus to show us the ways we have failed to love him and one another. Let us confess these sins to him, let us ask him to cleanse the panes of our souls so his light might shine out brightly through us, and we might be filled with the joy of the Lord and stand pure and blameless before him. If we do, when he comes again we will be able to life our eyes to his in joy and behold the power, the splendor, and the loveliness of his face. We will be able to keep the Apostles exhortation to “rejoice always” and be burning and shining lamps for the Lord (I Thessalonians 5:16). Amen.