Sunday, December 6, 2015

Homily for 2d Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 6, 2015
Luke 3: 1-6
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“John went thru the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3: 3).

Statue of St. John the Baptist
in Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome
All of the Gospels begin the story of the public ministry of Jesus with John the Baptist.  John is the forerunner, the one sent by God to “prepare the way of the Lord” (3:4), to get the people ready for Jesus to appear.

So John is one of the prominent figures of this Advent season.  He’s not preparing us for another physical, historical appearance of Jesus—altho the liturgy of the last 2 Sundays did remind us that Christ will return in glory at the end of time to complete the whole story of our redemption.  But Christ’s immediate coming for which we’re preparing is a coming in grace.  The key song for these weeks isn’t “Jingle Bells” or even that Santa knows whether we’ve been naughty or good, but “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and ransom us.

Luke sets the story within a specific time frame.  He names 7 historical figures, all of them named in various contemporary records, some of whom we know a good deal about, like Emperor Tiberius, who reigned from 14 to 37 A.D. (remember that in case you’re ever on Jeopardy), and the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee—part of the Roman province of Syria—from 4 B.C. to 37 A.D.  We know that Pontius Pilate was an oppressive procurator or governor of Judea—another section of the province of Syria—from 26 to 36.  Annas was high priest from 6 to 15 A.D., when the Romans deposed him; he remained a power behind the scene when his son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest from 18 to 36.  Do you see a pattern here?

Jesus enters human history at a specific time and place to fulfill God’s plan for our salvation.  His story isn’t a pious myth but real history.  He’s a real part of our story.

Moreover, most of these historical powers will oppose Jesus.  Annas, Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate will all work to obstruct Jesus’ message and destroy him—Pilate being ultimately responsible for executing him, as we remember every time we recite the Creed.

Obviously, these earthly powers didn’t succeed in destroying Jesus or his message.  That’s part of what Luke is showing us today.  God’s plan won’t be thwarted by the enmity of the State, of religious powers, or of any worldly power.  This was encouragement for 1st-century Christians persecuted by Roman and Jewish authorities, and it’s encouragement for Christians persecuted today in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere.  It’s a reminder even to us, who face public threats to our religious freedom and private acts of discrimination on account of our faith.

Turning to John the Baptist and his message, Luke informs us that John prepared for the coming of the Lord by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  We’ll hear some specifics about that next Sunday.  As we Catholics prepare to celebrate a jubilee year of mercy, a year of more intense reminders of the availability of God’s mercy to us sinners, it’s important that we note what Luke says:  “the forgiveness of sins” is linked to “repentance.”  God always wants to extend his mercy to us, to forgive our sins; but we must acknowledge them and repent of them 1st.

There’s an old story about a visit that Napoleon made to a prison one day.  I don’t know whether it’s true, but it’s a good story.  Prisoner after prisoner protested to the emperor that he was innocent of the crime for which he’d been sentenced.  Finally, one guy told Napoleon that he was indeed guilty and deserved to be where he was.  The emperor issued him an immediate pardon, joking that he couldn’t take a chance that a criminal would corrupt all the innocent men around him.  The key to the pardon, of course, was the man’s admission of guilt.

It’s true of us, too.  Christ came to redeem sinners.  But he can do that only when we acknowledge that we need to be redeemed.  In this Advent season he comes to us in grace—with forgiveness, with mercy—when we open ourselves to him.  Therefore it’s urgent that we examine ourselves and admit our moral failings—our sins against God’s commandments, against the teachings of Jesus, against the Church’s interpretations of those commandments and teachings—and that we turn to God in repentance, with a resolve to try to be more faithful to our Lord Jesus.  I quote St. John Paul II:  “Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church” (Veritatis splendor, n. 119).

Pope Francis has proclaimed a Year of Mercy that will start this Tuesday, feast of the Immaculate Conception.  We all recognize Francis as the Pope of God’s mercy.  A noted commentator observes:  “To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness.  Or to shift to one of the Pope’s favorite metaphors, it is to be acutely conscious that one is wounded so severely that one requires, not minor treatment, but the emergency and radical attention provided in a hospital on the edge of a battlefield.  Recall that when Francis was asked … to describe himself, he responded, ‘a sinner.’  Then he added, ‘who has been looked upon by the face of mercy.’”[1]

That merciful face of our Lord Jesus gazes also upon us.  Here at St. Vincent’s you have a chaplain on staff Monday thru Friday.  Ask to see him and, thru him, turn your sins over to Jesus in the sacrament of Reconciliation.  Prepare for Christmas by being made new and fresh with God’s grace.

God bless you.

      [1] Bishop Robert Barron, “Pope Francis and True Mercy,” National Catholic Register on-line, Oct. 14, 2015:

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