08 December 2019

Homily - Camel's hair is a sign of, and a call to, repentance

The Second Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

It is a rare moment in the Scriptures when we are told what someone wears, but two of the four Evangelists - Matthew and Mark – take the time to tell us Saint John the Baptist “wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist” (Matthew 3:4; cf. Mark 1:6). If both Evangelists make explicit reference to John’s clothing, there must be something significant about it; but what? What is noteworthy about a tunic made of camel’s hair?

Saint John Chrysostom tells us, “John’s clothing itself was symbolic of nothing less than the coming kingdom and of repentance.”[1] We know this is true become there is another man who wore similar clothing in the Scriptures, one who lived many centuries before John’s birth. To this man the angel of the Lord said:

Go, intercept the messengers of Samaria’s king, and ask them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baalzebub, the god of Ekron?’ For this, the Lord says: ‘You shall not leave the bed upon which you lie; instead, you shall die’” (II Kings 1:3-4).

This man warned of impending death for the grave sin of idolatry, of turning to false gods for help.

Hearing these words, the king’s messengers returned to him. King Ahaziah asked them, “What was the man like who came up to you and said these things to you” (II Kings 1:7). “‘Wearing a hairy garment,’ they replied, ‘with a leather girdle about his loins’” (II Kings 1:8). Hearing this description, the king knew at once the name of this man and cried out, “It is Elijah the Tishbite” (II Kings 1:8)!

By donning a garment made of camel’s hair and securing it with a belt of leather, John the Baptist demonstrated in a clear way his prophetic calling. We learn through the prophet Zechariah that this form of dress was customary for the prophets: “On that day, every prophet shall be ashamed to prophesy his vision, neither shall he assume the hairy mantle” (Zechariah 13:4). But more than this, John showed through the use of his clothing, that he was Elijah.

That Elijah would return was foretold by the Lord God through the Prophet Malachi:
Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with doom (Malachi 3:24).

The mission of John the Baptist was the same as that of Elijah, to turn back hearts. This is why he cried out in the desert, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2)! Because John the Baptist’s life so clearly reflected that of Elijah, Jesus said of John, “All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matthew 11:13-15). What are we to hear? His call to repentance, for John came “to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77).

Regrettably, too many people have accepted the lie that sin is unimportant; too many people say something like, “I’m a good person; that’s all God wants.” This is simply not true; God desires – and even commands – that we be holy, that our lives look like that of Christ Jesus.

To sin is – in Greek – “to miss the mark,” hamartia. It is an archery term used by Saint Paul to describe our offense against the law of God, our failures to love by God and neighbor. Put simply, to sin is to miss the mark. What is the mark for which we are aiming if not the life of Jesus? We our lives fail to reflect his, we miss the mark; we sin.

As I said, lots of people today refuse to acknowledge their sins. They think because they have not committed physical murder or adultery, or because they have not robbed a bank, that they have not sinned. This is only because they fail to realize the reality of sin; every sin is a failure to love, and each of us fails to love several times each day. Saint Augustine put it this way:

So long as a person bears flesh, he cannot but have some at least slight sins. But don’t belittle what we are referring to as these slight sins. If you belittle them when you weigh them, shudder them when you count them out. For many slight ones make a great one: many drops fill a river; many grains make a mass. And what hope is there? Confession above all.[2]

Confessions are heard here before Mass, but few people come; next week, another opportunity will be had. Will you hear the cry of the Baptist to repent and take advantage of this opportunity to prepare the way of the Lord?

When it comes to confession, people generally have a few basic questions, the first of which goes something like this: “Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest?” The short answer is because Jesus wants us to confess our sins to a priest. When he breathed the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, Jesus said to them, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). If Jesus did not want the Apostles to forgive sins, he would not have given them power and the authority to do so; he did nothing needlessly. If the Apostles are to know which sins to forgive and which sins to retain, they must know what the sins are and this requires confession.

The second question wants to know something like, “Won’t Father treat me differently? What if he remembers my sins?” The likelihood that a priest remembers who goes to confession is small; we enter the confession to lift the burden of sin, not to keep a tally of who comes. However, even if a priest does remember who comes to confession, he cannot treat that person any better or any worse because of what he learns in the confessional. It’s rare that a priest might remember who confessed what sin. You enter the confessional to get of your sins; why would the priest want to keep them?

A third question is, “It’s been a long time; how do I go to confession.” The process is very simple. Enter the confessional and tell the priest how long its been since your last confession. “It’s been while,” means different things to different people; has it been two months, or thirty-seven years? Next, confess your sins are best as you able; there is no need to euphemisms; let the priest know you are finished by saying something like, “These are my sins,” so he doesn’t accidentally interrupt your thoughts. The priest may then give a few words of counsel and will give you a penance. If you think the penance is too severe or too light, let the priest know. Next, make an act of contrition by acknowledging your sorrow for sin; it can be as simple as, “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The priest will give you absolution and send you on your way with your burden lifted.

When Saint John tells us to prepare the way of the Lord, he intends for us to prepare and cleanse our hearts, for by cleansing our hearts we also cleanse our lives. This is – frankly – the only preparation for Christmas that matters. As beautiful as the lights and trees are, as tasty as the cookies are, if our hearts and souls are not prepared, all of the preparations of our homes will be vain and will not produce the full joy that is desired.

In what remains of Advent, “what we really must do is clear the way for the Lord who is good and powerful. We are disposing our hearts for an encounter of love with him, and in this way we are encouraged to undertake the needed purification.”[3] Ask the Lord, then, to help you recognize your failures to love, your failures to love both God and neighbor, in ways both large and small. Enter into the confessional with these failures to love and ask for the grace to make a good and worthy confession. By doing so, you will encounter Love himself, who will fill you the joy and peace he longs for you to have because his kingdom is indeed at hand. Amen.

[1] Saint John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 10.4.
[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, 3.14.
[3] Albert Vanhoye, S.J., Daily Bread of the Word: Reflections on the Weekday Lectionary Readings (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2019), 2.

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