Sunday, December 8, 2013

Homily for 2d Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 8, 2013
Matt 3: 1-12
Ursulines, Willow Drive, N.R.

“John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt 3: 1-2).

Our attention shifts this week from the 2d coming of Christ, where we focused the last 2 or 3 weeks, to his 1st coming.  His 1st coming as reported in the gospels isn’t so much his incarnation and birth as it is his public appearance and public ministry, and especially his death and resurrection.  The gospel story of our salvation really begins with the preaching of John the Baptist, which is where Peter and Paul begin their preaching in the Acts of the Apostles.

We don’t know much about John, even tho all 4 gospels and even Josephus report his ministry.  Matthew today shows us how much of a precursor of Jesus he is; he preaches the same message as Jesus:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (cf. Mark 1:14-15; Matt 4:17).

St. John the Baptist
St. Mary's Church, Fredericksburg, Va.
Like Mark and Luke, Matthew also sees in John the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about God’s bringing salvation to his people out of the desert (3:3).  Mark and Matthew see John as another Elijah, a kind of wild prophet—indicated by his dress and his diet (3:4)—who comes out of the desert to denounce the wicked powers of the world and to lead God’s people back to faithfulness (on that point Luke is most direct in Gabriel’s words to Zechariah in the Temple [1:16-17]).  Later, Jesus says explicitly that John was “Elijah who was to come” (Matt 17:12; Mark 9:13).

Evidently John is a very charismatic character.  He draws huge crowds, and they respond to him, as so many Americans do to many preachers, from George Whitfield in the 1740s, to Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1920s, to Billy Graham in our own time—not to mention the famous and the infamous televangelists.  A significant difference between John the Baptist and some preachers we’ve known—not all of them, to be sure—is that John points away from himself toward “one mightier than” himself who is coming, one who will bring “the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11).  John knows that he is not the message, only the messenger.  He’s not the kingdom, only its herald:  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  I’m not worthy [even] to carry his sandals” (3:11).

We all remember John’s challenge to the immoral behavior of Herod and Herodias.  We might overlook, tho, the challenge that he throws at the religious leaders in today’s passage (3:7-12), which is unique to Matthew.  Luke, indeed, records the same words about producing the fruits of repentance, presumption, and the threat of hellfire—but addressed to the whole crowd, not to the Pharisees and Sadducees particularly.  As in Elijah’s day, even the political and religious leaders have to be called back to faithfulness.

Priests and religious today, like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day, always run a certain danger of presumption, of not taking fully to heart the call to repentance, the call to conversion.  It’s so easy for us to go thru the motions of being at prayer, of going to Mass, of showing up for meetings, even of serving the needy; to show up for all the practices of piety and all the required community assemblies—without committing ourselves totally to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus makes present.

St. John the Baptist Preaching
Alessandro Allori
Hasn’t Pope Francis created a stir—made a mess, as he put it—by reminding cardinals, bishops, priests, and religious of our need for conversion? for personally encountering Jesus?  Hasn’t he created a stir by demonstrating the fruits of repentance (3:8)—admitting his own sinfulness and mistakes, going to confession every 2 weeks, being present to the poor, the sick, the refugees, the jailed, the abandoned, the unwed mothers, and the lowliest working people of the Vatican?  by being a shepherd who smells like the sheep and who walks alongside the sheep, not just barking out directions from the far rear of the flock (or the ivory tower of a chancery or a rectory)?

Of course, our personal circumstances may limit our contact with the sheep.  That doesn’t mean we can rest on our status as religious or priest, thinking we’ve already secured a place in the kingdom.  The command to “produce good fruit” remains—such fruits as Paul suggests today:  “encouragement,” “harmony,” and openness toward one another (Rom 15:4-9); such fruits as we profess in the Lord’s Prayer, like submission to the Lord’s will and forgiveness of one another.

Last Wednesday I went to Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey to hear a lecture by Immaculée Ilibagiza [identify, summarize her coming to forgive].

When we look into our hearts, do we see anything of which we need to repent, any area demanding our conversion?  How can we be more faithful to the Father and his kingdom?

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