3rd. Sun. of Advent (C)
(Zephaniah 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18)
A large crowd of people were coming to John for his blessing; they were coming because some thought that he might be the Messiah, while others -- though not regarding him personally as the Messiah -- were rightly convinced that, as a prophet of God, he could show them the true way to God, that he would help them know most surely what was God’s will for each of them personally.
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (Luke 3:7)
In the countryside when there was a brush fire, vipers could occasionally be seen scurrying as best they could to avoid the flames. If you remember, St. Paul would be bitten by such a serpent escaping from the fire lit by those who, along with Paul, had just escaped from cold ocean waters after being shipwrecked near Malta.
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
This was meant in the sense of “Don’t think you can just come here and be baptised by me and then you will have nothing more to worry about.”
Produce fruit in keeping with repentance and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (vv. 8-9)
Let us look carefully and with no little wonder at this situation, People of God, because we do not see the like in our Western society today. Here we have not a non-descript crowd, but members of a people, coming as such to ask John the way to God; here we have a people who, though being aware of themselves as God’s Chosen People, were humble enough to admit that they did not know that way; a people, still holy enough however, to suspect that they had indeed long been walking away from God by their life-style. They had been brought to that admission by the unknown guidance of God, Who having brought them low in their own self-esteem had thereby been able to set them out on the right path by asking John’s help; here, streaming to John, they were showing themselves as indeed members of the People of God, God’s Chosen and worked-on-for-over-two-thousand-years People.
Today, however, we are surrounded by people, as a whole, alienated or alienating themselves from God by either their ludicrously high self-esteem or their tragically low appreciation of God, His Church, and especially her ministers; too many of them still calling themselves Catholics but never turning to their Church’s teaching for guidance on human issues or in their personal difficulties. They will talk with their neighbours or their current friends seeking worldly understanding and comfort but would never dream of humbling themselves (so they would put it) to ask a priest concerning the Church’s approach or teaching. I wonder what words John would have used to describe such people? They would have been very colourful I suspect, for the image of vipers wriggling in the dust for their very lives before the advancing brush fire is remarkably descriptive!
Anyhow, we can see clearly, my dear people, that John had no time for people who would come to him just for baptism and nothing more … John demanded that anyone seeking his baptism had to produce fruit of repentance and give him evidence of it.
The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
In our very lukewarm Catholic society of today would John be any less demanding of those seeking Jesus’ sacraments for reasons other than, or even at times alien to, the purpose and nature of the sacrament itself: those, for example, seeking not to dedicate their marriage to God, but just a truly ‘posh’ wedding for themselves, or again, a ‘proper’ baptism in view of a place in a ‘popular’ school for their children … nay even those in Church on Sunday who come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist merely as a tiresome duty expected of them. In line with today’s Gospel reading, shouldn’t all such people be – in some way or other – made to, brought to, realize their duty to ‘bring forth fruit’ for such privileges; or are they to be ‘charitably’ allowed to continue regarding them as mere occasions to confirm their own personal parish standing or opportunities for their social advancement?
As Catholics we have to seek the Lord at all times indeed, but even more so now that Mother Church is subject to so much hostile scrutiny, let alone active persecution. We have to seek His face above all by sincere endeavours to grow in His love and walk in His ways; ways designed by Him indeed to guide us along paths of obedience leading to our eternal fulfilment but framed, so to speak, in such a way that show us such great respect, even reverence: for, whereas those coming to John were driven by fear of what was approaching we, on the other hand, God seeks to draw us by gratitude to Himself for love of Jesus as the prophet Zephania foretold,
The Lord has removed the judgment against you; He has turned away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you have no further misfortune to fear. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty Saviour. He will rejoice over you with gladness. (3:15-17)
Oh, how great are the blessings we, who are called to the Faith, have received! We are in the Church, members of that Body of which Christ Jesus Himself is the Head and whose life is the Holy Spirit of love and truth. St. Paul told us:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! The Lord is near!
For the Risen Lord rejoices over us, as both Prophet and St. Paul have told us, delighting to be in our midst, and graciously offering Himself to be One with us and for us individually, whenever we gather with our brothers and sisters in His Name, as His Church. The Risen Lord is present in our midst that He might draw us to Himself and to each other, thus offering us a pre-emptive share in the life of His Father’s heavenly family; and He condescends to give Himself to us individually that He might enable us to share in some slight measure the sublime Beatitude of His own Oneness with His Father in their most Holy Spirit of mutual Love: thus we are to become truly living members of His Body, authentic witnesses to Him before the world, and thereby hand down not simply -- as many anxious people want today -- a purer atmosphere to subsequent generations, but the very Gospel of eternal life, the very Gospel of glory to God and goodwill to all mankind.
We must not allow ourselves, therefore, to think that we can come here and present ourselves to Him with the same old dispositions as we have always had; for each of us has to be gradually renewed interiorly, by constantly seeking the face of the Lord day in and day out; ever longing, asking, seeking and praying, to know God’s truth more surely, and to do whatever He wants of us ever more whole-heartedly. Since so much has been given and is being offered to us, we cannot live the same sort of life as those who seek above all to enjoy life in this world, we cannot bring forth merely worldly acceptable and praiseworthy fruit, for we are called to become children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, humble and committed instruments of the Holy Spirit.
And yet, in all such Catholic and Christian endeavours, take careful note of St. Paul again in his letter to the Philippians:
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. (Philippians 4:6)
We hear much from great prophets during Advent, especially prophecies from Isaiah and Jeremiah which foretold the future coming of Israel’s messiah, Whom we know as Jesus, mankind’s Redeemer. But we do not simply celebrate the memory of a past event at Christmas which, supremely beautiful though it was, included hints both tragic and glorious for its earthly development : rather, drinking deep of heavenly joy at the fulfilment of those promises thus ratified for Israel, we thereby celebrate in anticipation the assured fulfilment of God’s promise made directly to us through the Seer of the Book of Revelation, that -- for the grand fulfilment of God’s original plan -- Jesus will come again as God-made-Man totally glorified in the Spirit, for the final redemption of mankind, and the ultimate glorification of God Himself:
John, to the seven churches in Asia: grace to you and peace from Him Who is and Who was and Who is to come, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him Who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood, Who has made us into a kingdom, priests for His God and Father, to Him be glory and power forever. Amen. Behold, He is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him. Yes. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the One Who is and Who was and Who is to come, the Almighty.” (1:4–8)
That is why St. Paul exhorts us to have such confidence in God, and to find thereby for ourselves,
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding, and will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)