2nd Sunday of Advent 2012
The proclamation of Isaiah in today’s Gospel clearly defines the mission of John the Baptist, to herald the arrival of the Messiah which is taking place in the time of John. But the words of Isaiah which reveal the substance of John’s preaching and mission also clearly apply to us in our day, they are a clarion call to the Christian people during the season of Advent to prepare ourselves to meet the Lord. John was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah by heralding the immediate coming of the Messiah, and yet these words of Isaiah are as meaningful for us today, 2000 years later, as they were when Isaiah wrote them or John spoke them. We are called today by both ancient prophets and by the Church herself to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Advent is a time that is to be spent preparing ourselves to meet Christ the Messiah and Lord here and now and when he comes again in glory. And the here and now does not simply mean His coming at Christmas, which is simply a recalling of his first coming. No, He truly comes here and now, every day, in the holy Sacraments, and most wonderfully in the Holy Eucharist. For those who long for him today, like those in John’s day who longed for him, Christ is always coming to us, always fulfilling the end of that Isaian prophecy which proclaims that at his coming “all flesh will see the salvation of God.”
Nonetheless, Christmas is a most appropriate and effective time for the Church to direct the Baptist’s message to her children. It certainly helps us to celebrate the first coming of Christ with the joy that accompanied his coming for the faithful little ones. Moreover, Christmas may be the one time during the year when many Christians, even many Catholics, give much thought at all to Jesus Christ or to matters of religion, and that is not to be minimalized as a good thing for these souls Christ loves and died for.
Indeed, at Christmas we all are reminded in a very powerful but simple way that this world is not all there is, and teaches us that in God’s eyes this world and its affairs, which literally consume the lives of most people, are not at all primary in God’s judgment. What Christmas, the child in the crib, proclaims is that what really matters in this life is getting close to that child born of a Virgin on Christmas day. It teaches us in a simple and beautiful way that our relationship to Jesus Christ is the true key to our happiness, not just in this world but for all eternity, in the world to come.
Christmas, properly celebrated, which means above all liturgically celebrated, brings eternity to the forefront of our consciousness, because the only reason we have Christmas is because that child came from eternity into our world. He lowered himself to assume our nature, and he humbled himself even to become a helpless infant, and he did all this to save us from our sins, and when that mission was accomplished he returned to the Eternity from which he came. We now await for Him to return once again from eternity to this world to judge all flesh, the living and the dead, and that judgment we believe will determine our fate, for eternity. Thus Isaiah’s admonition to prepare the way of the Lord takes on an even deeper meaning when it is projected against our eternal destiny.
So it’s hard to avoid the eternal questions, if one takes Christmas seriously at all. And so Advent is a good time for the Church to send John the Baptist into our lives once again to preach to us to prepare the way of the Lord. John tells us every year to repent and Isaiah tells us to prepare for His coming by filling in the valleys of our omissions in the service of God and to level the mountains of our pride that puts just about everything before God and our relationship to God.
John the Baptist was not the kind of prophet who made men feel easy about their lives. His message was about repentance which led to forgiveness of sins, and it was this repentance that he demanded of everyone as the critical means for preparing the way for the Lord. It was a message which he repeated insistently, day in and day out, and crowds flocked to the Jordan to receive his baptism of repentance, until the day when the Lord Himself arrived, the one whom John was heralding and preparing his followers to receive. Then, and only then, would John quietly recede into the background and fulfill his mission by dying at the hands of a King who did not appreciate John’s calling him to repentance for living in adultery. Only those who had repented could become the followers of the one who came into this world to redeem all mankind.
John’s message of repentance, however, would not end with him, for his mission yielded to a universal mission that he proclaimed which would come with the Messiah he heralded. The universality of what was to follow John in the Christ is suggested perhaps by St. Luke just before he mentions John, where he points to the political situation in which Rome represented the whole world for those who lived under her power. John would die, but his voice would live on in the Church, to preach his gospel of repentance to the ends of the world and to the end of time. And so the Church evokes his voice once again today to declare that Advent preparation means, above all, preparing for the coming of the Lord through a practice of repentance for our sins.
I and sure there are many Catholics today who find this approach to Advent to be somewhat too negative, too much of a downer before the joy of the Christmas season to follow. But the Church is insistent on this point of repentance, and resistance to it is unfortunately simply a replay of the resistance that John himself met with when he personally preached this message.
In fact, our other two readings today support this message of John, in their own way. The first reading from Baruch, which is quite joyful, speaks of the mountains being leveled and the age-old depths being filled to level ground. The spiritual interpretation of this imagery surely refers to the age-old depths of human sin, and speaks with joy only because these depths are to be filled in so that man may walk once again with his God in peace and friendship.
Likewise, St. Paul tells the Philippians that he prays for them, that at the second coming of Christ, they “may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness.” Only when a person has a clear conscience and acts blamelessly before God can he or she be ready to meet the Lord on the “day of the Lord” and have the clarity of insight to know what really matters in this world.
What will really matter when we stand before the Lord? Will it be our stocks and bonds, or the state of the economy, the money and other things we have accumulated over the years? All that will truly matter is that we have a blameless conscience and pure hearts, and nothing else. That is Paul’s message, John’s message, Baruch’s message and the Church’s message to us today.
And if people do not heed this message today, is it not simply because they have become deaf and blind to spiritual things. Perhaps this heedlessness is present because they have closed their ears like so many did when Jesus preached the hard sayings, or when John demanded repentance as the condition for meeting the Lord. Or perhaps it is caused by a long absence from the confessional which has deadened their consciences, so that blameless now means blameless in my own eyes, with no reference to God. Perhaps it is simply due to a kind of spiritual sloth or inertia that has taken over their lives, weighed down, as we all are at times, by the cares of this world. Too many people seem just too tired to make the effort required by John and Paul and Baruch. Perhaps it is because we no longer seem to be inspired by the thought of heaven, and we are all too content with the meager fare of this earth.
The remedy is given to us by these inspired writers taken together: to rouse ourselves and stand upon the heights of the Church’s vision of Heaven, to struggle to see once again the light of His glory who comes not to condemn the world but to save us. For he comes with mercy and justice for our salvation. Perhaps repentance may cost us something, but as our Psalm today promises us, “those who sow in tears, shall reap rejoicing, although they go forth weeping, … they shall come back rejoicing.” And finally, Paul’s word express the Church’s prayer and hope for each of us here today, and for all of God’s children: I am sure of this much: that he who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion right up to the day of Christ Jesus … so that you may be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in you, to the Glory and praise of God. May that be the fruit of our Advent preparation. Amen.