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 an Infant, like one of us, yet destined to reveal, and indeed make manifest, something of the most intimate Personal glory of God; and as Redeemer sent by God, come to save His chosen ones and all who learn to invoke His most holy Name. Moreover, our celebration is not meant to be a mere fond reminiscence from the past, for it offers us an eye-piece for the future, as it were, whereby we might be able to understand, look forward to, and in some God-graced measure prepare for what is otherwise totally unprecedented in sublime majesty and solemn decisiveness for us: His future coming as the glorious Lord and Judge of mankind.
In today’s Gospel reading John the Baptist was about to die alone in the lowest dungeon of Herod’s prison for the Truth of the God Whose only-begotten Son-made-Man would Himself also die soon, alone but lifted high on Rome’s Cross of crucifixion.
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 prophets had foretold about God’s vengeance and retribution, and he duly forewarned the people, expectantly listening to his words, that the Messiah would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire, and:
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? The One Who is coming after me is mightier than I; I am not worthy to carry His sandals. 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 prophetic fire and fragility: for though the prophets as a whole foretold the truth of God, they never knew precisely the ‘when’, the ‘where’, or the ‘how’ their words would be fulfilled; and in that respect, 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 within himself and what he needed -- most urgently -- to proclaim in God’s Name to God’s People. When therefore John -- remembering the proud and arrogant Pharisees and Sadducees sent from Jerusalem to observe, report on, and decry all the crowds of penitents that used to come to him for baptism, and more particularly to decry John himself and his work of baptising in preparation for One to Come -- his present enforced inactivity and silence did not ‘sit well’ with him at all, and, hearing nothing else but the fact that Jesus was calmly baptising by the Jordan, but, it would seem, uttering no words threatening punishment or awesome ‘retribution’ for sinners, let alone hearing no news of Jesus actually beginning to fulfil any such heavenly punishment, John was puzzled. And above all now, when, as both prophet and precursor, he was actually incarcerated, being ill-used and threatened in Herod’s lowest dungeon, his human fragility showed itself, under such psychological and physical pressure, as a measure of prophetic anxiety and he needed to send disciples to urgently ask Jesus:
Are You the One Who is to come or should we look for another?
Jesus, however, sent his disciples back with a message telling John to accept, and indeed 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, ‘What has been given you is enough for you, for now. God’s retribution will come in God’s good time; accept what fulfilment has already been given you and realize:
Blessed is the one who takes no offense at Me.
Great things were being asked of John, People of God. Jesus did not declare John to be the greatest of all the children born of women without good reason: John would prove the truth of those words by persevering in faith, and dying in the peace of complete trust in God, and for so great an end and glorious fulfilment he had to be supported and encouraged by Jesus, not indulged. 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 be no such gift of self-dedication where comprehensive foreknowledge of the outcome is wanted, expected, or required. John was 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? Someone dressed in fine clothing? 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 worldly pre-occupations at times 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 is so intimately one with, like to, our Mother Church, which is the consummation, not only of all the prophets, but of all the teaching, laws, and worship of the Old Testament Revelation.
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? Then what have you gone out and come to Church for today? To find someone wearing fine clothes? That is, a Church providing a splendid liturgy, with all due pomp and pride, but not teaching, proclaiming, any troublesome doctrine.
NO? 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 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 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 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. Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He come to save you!
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 mankind’s ability to overcome, master, use and administer the world in all its complexity and wonder. But, without the gifts that only Jesus Himself 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!!