Third Sunday of Advent (A)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Advent prepares us for the celebration of our Lord’s coming on earth as one of us: as an Infant destined to reveal and make manifest something of the intimate Glory of God; and as Redeemer, to save His chosen ones and all who learn to invoke His most holy Name. However, our celebration is not meant to be a merely fond reminiscence; for it offers us an eye-piece, as it were, whereby we might be able to prepare for, and appreciate, something of what is otherwise hardly known and totally unprecedented for us: His future coming as the glorious Lord and Judge of mankind.
In today’s Gospel reading John the Baptist is about to acknowledge the Bridegroom’s presence to the Bride in a way that brings his faithful witness to Jesus to its glorious fulfilment: for the forerunner is about to die alone in the lowest dungeon of Herod’s prison for the Truth of the God Who will be lifted-up high, to die alone on Rome’s criminal Cross.
John was in prison awaiting his executioner and he was not absolutely sure about Jesus. The prophets, as we have just heard in our reading from the book of Isaiah, had foretold the coming of God:
Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe.
John was the one chosen not only to announce the Messiah but actually to introduce Him to the people, and John was well aware of this:
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the One who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John had been greatly impressed by what the prophet had foretold about God’s vengeance and retribution, and he duly forewarned the expectant people that the Messiah will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. However,
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism
he addressed them directly with words of divine truth indeed, but spoken with a vehemence that was his own, saying (Matthew 3:7-12):
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. The One Who is coming after me is mightier than I; I am not worthy to carry His sandals. His winnowing fan is in His hand. He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.
Such words showed something of John’s human weakness. For though the prophets as a whole foretold the truth, they rarely knew the ‘when’, or the ‘where’, or ‘how’ their words would be fulfilled; and even the immediate forerunner of the Lord Himself, not seeing clearly the whole plan of God, was obliged at times -- as on this occasion -- to use the veiled language of metaphors in order to express what he experienced most surely and needed to proclaim so urgently. When, therefore, John looked at Jesus and saw no direct manifestation of, nor heard any promise threatening, an imminent ‘day of vengeance’ or of awesome ‘retribution’ for sinners, his human weakness showed itself again and he was puzzled; indeed, perhaps he was even a little disappointed, because the pride and arrogance of the Pharisees and Scribes and their disdain of the poor and needy did not ‘sit well’ with him.
Jesus, however, sent him a message telling him to accept, embrace, the light which had already been afforded him:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
In other words Jesus was saying, ‘Accept what has been given you; that is enough for you, for now. As for the rest, God’s retribution will come in God’s good time; take the fulfilment which has already been given you and realize,
Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.’
Well, People of God, Jesus did not declare John to be the greatest of all the children born of women without good reason: John proved the truth of those words by persevering in faith and dying in the peace of complete trust in God. Even though he could not see or understand all that he would have liked to have seen and understood, nevertheless, he knew full well that God is beyond all human comprehension, giving light enough to guide our footsteps surely and bestowing grace sufficient to keep us safe along His ways so that we can be free from all solicitude about self and thus able to open up our hearts and minds in total commitment to Him in return. Now, there can, of course, be no such gift of self-dedication where comprehensive foreknowledge of the outcome is wanted, expected, or required. John was being offered sufficient light; and, when asked to back it up with all his love, he did not turn back, but was willing and able to enter into the valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil. Trusting in the word of the Lord and in the faithfulness of the God of his fathers, he was allowed to foreshadow with sublime fidelity Our Blessed Lord’s own end:
“Father, into your hands I commend My spirit”; and when He had said this He breathed His last. (Luke 23:46)
Jesus admired and loved John:
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”
Note carefully here, People of God, that Our Lord’s words about John concern Mother Church also, and as such are addressed to all who, along with us today, will and do take the trouble to go out and seek for God’s truth: who are prepared to set aside, at times, worldly pre-occupations in order to look more closely for the God and Saviour Who promises eternal life to all who will open when He knocks on the door of their spiritual awareness.
Yes, John was indeed a prophet, he was the greatest, and in that respect he was like our Mother Church which is the consummation of the prophets of old.
What did you go out – out of your warm and comfy homes – for; why did you disturb your pleasant rest, leave your happy gatherings, interrupt your holidays, and the like? Why did you go to Church? To find a reed swaying in the breeze? That is, a Church whose teaching changes in accordance with every contemporary doctrine of supposed science, with every whim of popular conceit, and with every plaint of human self-love and solicitude? A nice Church, perhaps even a very nice Church, which says you can believe and do what you want so long as you have a sizeable number of people thinking along the same lines as you?
NO, People of God, you surely do not want such a Church, whose priests simply preach and proclaim what you find least stressing or most comforting to hear!!
Then what have you gone out and come to Church for today? To find someone wearing fine clothes? That is, preaching a doctrine that will fit you really comfortably, indeed, ‘down to the ground’: not restricting or restraining any of your lower desires, but rather ‘dolling them up’ with modern fancy phrases which might enable you to think that really they are good desires, about which past generations have been sadly mistaken. Or again, that the Church in her ancient ignorance and simplicity does not understand that Scripture’s apparently plain words and open condemnations really need to be approached with the whole panoply of modern pseudo-scholarship, so that they can be understood and adapted in accordance with the dictates of faithless self-seekers and the exigencies of ‘natural’ longings which demand free expression!
No, no!! I don’t think the vast majority of you here -- indeed, I hope that none of you here -- want that!
Then what do you go out of your homes each Sunday and come to Church for? To see a prophet? Yes, and much more than a prophet.
You have come to a prophet, that is, to the Church which is our true Mother and which dares to proclaim to us the saving truth of God whether it meets with popular approval or not. Indeed, you have come to much more than a prophet, for you have come to Jesus Christ Himself, Who promised to be with His Church to the end of time; and this Church, the Catholic and universal Church, by His gift our Mother, is the only place where He has promised so to be.
This theme of ‘going out’, looking for a prophet who proclaims divine truth, this awaiting, searching, longing, for the Messiah to bestow on us personally the Salvation He brings for all, is the whole theme of Advent. Blessed are you who have allowed yourselves to be moved by such a desire today.
Our Christmas celebration of Jesus’ coming to us as Saviour has always held a unique attraction for us! What humble peace, simple joy, and deep human fulfilment, have ever and always emanated from that Holy Family bound together by unbreakable bonds of mutual love and reverence, and cherishing in its embrace the Child of divine promise and most sublime expectations! All that now serves, as I said, as our eye-glass for appreciating and preparing for what we can hope to find when He comes again, this time in divine glory and as Judge to reward the faithful and condemn the sin of the world. It will be most awesome and far in excess of our imaginings, expectations, or anticipations, and that is why we were given the experience and example of John the Baptist today: for, though our weakness will be tested, our faith must not be shaken, for our hopes will not be disappointed, as Isaiah said:
(You) will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God. Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He come to save you!
Or, as St. James tells us:
Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand. Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates. Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Dear People of God, as we look around us today, Christmas has become what has been long threatening, Xmas. I pods and tablets, televisions and computers, technology of all sorts, are being constantly produced and promoted, sold and sought after … and all are worthy of praise for their testimony to humanities’ ability to overcome, master, use and administer the world in all its complexity and wonder. But, without the gifts that only Jesus Himself -- the Lord of Christmas – brings, they make up what is but a soulless celebration of human wit without wisdom, fullness without fulfilment.
The Lord of Heaven’s Armies says, “The day of judgment is coming, burning like a furnace. On that day the arrogant and the wicked will be burned up like straw. But for you who fear My name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in His wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture. (Malachi 4:1–2 NLT)
Both aspects of Christmas are there; John the Baptist is there and Jesus is there. Indeed, all aspects of Christmas are there, for I love to see what I regard as a delightful reference (metaphoric, of course) to our own, very human, spirit of Christmas rejoicing, in those final words:
And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture!!