John came baptizing in the Jordan and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to those members of God’s Chosen People who were sufficiently religious and humble to want to hear him. This was his message:
One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of His sandals. I have baptized you with water; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets of Israel -- indeed, as Jesus said, the greatest of all those born of woman -- was sent to immediately precede Jesus and personally introduce Him to His People, and John fulfilled that commission by proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. And that, People of God, is what makes us Christians and Catholics: the fact that we have believed in and been baptized into Jesus from Whom -- as members of His Body in the Church -- we have received the gift of His Holy and life-giving Spirit which has made us adopted children of the Father, aspiring to and hoping for eternal fulfilment in His heavenly Kingdom. It is the Holy Spirit within us Who enables us to cry out “Abba”, “Father” in response to the One God Who not only speaks to us but also with us, thereby enabling us, even here on earth, to share in some measure the Heavenly Communion which is the life and love of the Most Holy Trinity: being loved by the Lord Who died and now lives for us, cherished by the Spirit Who guides and forms us, and called by and to the Father Who will glorify us. John the Baptist was brief and to the point, in a few words giving us the essential characteristic of the coming Messiah Whom he John would point out:
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
The person of John is no longer with us, but his words remain for all time as the only preparation whereby we can fittingly receive the Lord into our lives:
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus Himself, indeed, when later on as a man He began His public ministry, simply took up John’s call in His own very first words, as St. Mark tells us (1:14-15) :
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfilment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Now, there are many who regard that call to repentance proclaimed in Mother Church today as over the top and excessive, looking for sin, for fault and guilt in all aspects of our lives. Should not our lives as Catholics and Christians, they would say, be characterised rather by manifest joy in the Lord?
Yes, it is possible for certain people who specialise in being their own spiritual guide to become obsessive in their introspection as they search for sin to be repented, but such a mere and unhealthy possibility can in no way justify any general teaching that would proclaim a sort of truce with sin; for neuroticism is no true fruit of authentic Catholic teaching or practice.
Again, it is most true that our lives should bespeak our joy in the Lord, but such witness is not one that can be ‘stirred-up’ and ‘put on’ in a clap-happy display of emotional excitement.
For the authentic Christian understanding and practice of repentance we need to look closely at our readings today in order to appreciate Mother Church’s teaching in this matter. What was it that John said? What had Isaiah proclaimed? What was Peter’s warning?
John said ‘repent’ first and then -- to Andrew and another of his disciples -- ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ just as Jesus was passing by. Such is the composite nature of conversion, repentance: first turn from sin, then turn to the Lord.
Turn from sin, start to correct the ravages of sin in your life. That is what we heard from Isaiah in the words:
A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.
Such indeed is the first requirement of repentance in our lives, turn away from sin in all sincerity; and, in doing that, turn to the Lord:
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Were would-be-Christians simply to give themselves to turning from sin without turning to the Lord -- that is, without actively acknowledging that the Lord (alone) is good -- that could only lead to pride, even of devilish proportions. Were such would-be-Christians, on the other hand, to simply proclaim the glory of the Lord without a serious endeavour to reject and avoid sin, such praise would be hypocritical, certainly not what ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken’. The prophecy of Isaiah is one, entire and whole:
In the desert prepare the way of the Lord …make it straight, level, and plain … then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Notice too, People of God, that Isaiah’s prophecy provides us with a sure way to test the quality of our repentance, to appreciate how much and what sort of repentance we need: is the glory of the Lord being revealed to you? Do you, as you grow older year by year, see and admire in Jesus more and more of the glory, that is, of the beauty, the goodness, the truth, and the wisdom, of God? Do you, as the years pass by, become ever more grateful to the Father for His goodness to you in Jesus: perhaps, even, for His goodness to all mankind? Do you find yourself more and more willing to trust Him completely, to trust Him alone? Do you aspire to know, love, and serve Him with your whole being? If you can say “Yes” to questions such as these then indeed, you are both sincerely repenting and truly seeking the face of the Lord; and I can say that confidently, because the glory of God is, indeed, being gradually revealed to you.
But what if, as the years go by, when you seriously look at yourself and sincerely question yourself before God, what if then you recognize that you are thinking less and less of Jesus because you are increasingly absorbed in worldly interests and aspirations, more and more preoccupied with cares about people and money and less and less attentive to God speaking to you in your conscience or touching your heart-strings? Do you feel yourself obliged to respond in kind for every little benefit you receive from others -- a Christmas card for a Christmas card, an invitation for an invitation, a gift for a gift -- and yet never think that you owe a debt of gratitude to God for all the many blessings He has bestowed on you throughout Hyour life?
All these failings are quite possible, People of God, where Christian people are no longer living with God, for God, sufficiently, but always looking at and responding to others in order to justify, protect, satisfy and advance themselves.
In our first reading from the prophet Isaiah we heard his striking evocation of Israel’s return from her Babylonian exile as a triumphal procession of God’s People, freed from the chains of captivity and having paid for their sins, following the lead of the Lord their God towards a Jerusalem urged to become a radiant herald of good news. And that good news was that:
The Glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.
After 500 years that prophecy approached fulfilment when Jesus, the glorious Son of God made flesh, Himself entered Jerusalem with humble acclaim shortly before He was delivered over to an ignominious death on a Roman cross at priestly behest. Then, indeed, on the third day, the Glory of God was most truly and sublimely revealed in His glorious resurrection: not visible to the bodily eyes of some few then present in Jerusalem, but to be seen by all people together, as the prophet says; to be seen, that is, with eyes of faith offered equally to all people, of all times, and in all places.
Mother Church, however, now bids us hear St. Peter speaking as a prophet of the New Testament, and telling us:
The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
That day will be the final coming and manifestation of the Lord, a divine and transcendent vision of ultimate reality, both solemn and glorious, introducing no mere jingoistic national triumph, but individual judgement and universal consummation. However, Saint Peter adds for those who are impatient or doubting:
With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.
And so, no matter what might be the state we find ourselves in at this moment, advent is the season when we are urged by Mother Church to aspire to welcome Jesus into our lives anew: that His truth might enlighten us, His love inspire us, and the Gift of His most Holy Spirit be our sustenance and guide along His way to the Father. The moment in time is irrelevant to God, His glory, and our salvation; what matters is that we be found to have the desire to listen and the humility to learn, the love and the longing for the good He promises, and finally the patience and fortitude to forget ourselves and to trust Him for the achieving of it.
Oh, the wisdom of Mother Church who sets before us today two prophets: Isaiah, so lyrical and Peter so solemn! Yes, how very different, but ultimately how very complimentary they are for us today. Isaiah was proclaiming comfort to my people in the name of God for those returning home from exile in Babylonia, following the Lord journeying with them to dwell once again in a renewed Jerusalem …. Peter was comforting too, but he was offering comfort to a people suffering persecution and experiencing uncertainty. For those hearing Isaiah the nation was about to be re-established, the capital city to be rebuilt, and the Temple -- the glory of Jerusalem and of the whole nation -- was to become glorious again with God’s Name dwelling there! For those reading St. Peter’s letter, however, there was no nation, no capital city, no renowned Temple or Church, just the wide and thinly spread Christian body, a spiritual unity indeed, but almost invisible in a hostile and multitudinous world. Both Isaiah and Peter were appealing to faith in their hearers, but in Isaiah’s case national pride and expectations were also very strong in the hearts and minds of the people …. whereas for Peter’s message there was nothing but the faith of confessors and martyrs to welcome and uphold it … no national pride to identify themselves, or to unite and bolster them against their enemies.
Nevertheless, Isaiah’s message was heard by a people unaware of the dangers inherent to their apparent strength, while Peter’s message was given to a scattered group whose sore-tried faith was becoming, under much pressure, a firm basis for the nascent Church.
The joyful remembrance of the birth of Our Lord is not an end in itself. Christmas joy is a means towards our salvation, it is a providentially repeated stage on the way: a time of refreshment, renewal, and re-direction.
At Christmas we are meant to recall the Almighty God and Lord of Hosts Who became, for love of us, a little Child destined:
For the fall and rising of many, and for a sign which will be spoken against;
a Child Whose mother would have to experience a sword pierce her soul, when ultimately, despised and rejected of men, He was crucified on a little hill just outside Jerusalem. And St. Peter reminds us that the memory of such unheard-of love, promising us atonement and eternal salvation, is for our unfailing and grateful refreshment as, conducting ourselves in holiness and devotion, we journey on, eager to be found without spot or blemish before Him; at peace, and waiting for the coming of the day of the Lord, when there will be new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, such Christmas joy and heavenly expectations must never be used as a pretext for, soiled by, earthly revelry replete with drunken and/or sordid excesses.
During this Advent and the Christmas season therefore -- in the spirit of Isaiah’s original prophecy -- let us indeed embrace St. Paul’s words (Philippians 4:4-7):
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say, rejoice! Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.