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, Saviour, and the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. And that, People of God, is what makes us Christians and Catholics: the fact that, having believed in and been baptized into Jesus, we have received from Him the gift of His Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit within us Who subsequently enables us to cry out to God, “Abba”, “Father”. The true Christian is one who already shares, in some measure even here on earth, the life of the Most Holy Trinity; because the true Catholic is, through faith and baptism, a living member of the Body of Christ, the Son of God; and, being in Jesus, the faithful soul is moved by the Holy Spirit of Jesus to recognize and cry out as a child to God the Father.
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 the Baptist is no longer with us, but his call still resounds. He was given the privilege of preparing God’s People for the coming of the Saviour by the God Who never repents of His gifts; so, though John no longer pours water from the Jordan over those coming to hear him, nevertheless his words remain valid for all time as the only preparation whereby we can fittingly receive the Lord into our lives, “Repent”:
John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And Jesus Himself, on beginning His public ministry, took up John’s call for repentance in His 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: there is, they say, a danger of making ourselves paranoid by constantly looking for sin, for fault, for guilt, in all aspects of our lives? Should not our lives as Catholics and Christians rather be a manifestation of joy in the Lord?
Yes, there can be a danger of becoming paranoid in an ill-advised and ‘over-the-top’ search for sin in ones’ life, and we have heard of some such cases from the past. Nevertheless, paranoia is no true fruit of authentic Catholic teaching or practice, nor does the possible danger of ill-advised and excessive attempts at spiritual purification in any way condone, let alone require us, to tolerate sin in our lives, for sin is the most certain evil, and the most harmful influence, in our lives. Again, it is true, that our lives should bespeak our joy in the Lord, but such witness is not one that can be ‘put on’ in a clap-happy, pumped-up, display of emotionalism.
For the authentic Christian understanding and practice of repentance, we need to look closely, very closely, to our readings today in order to appreciate Mother Church’s teaching in this matter. What was it that John the Baptist said? What did Isaiah proclaim?
John said ‘repent’ first; and then, to Andrew and another of his disciples, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ just as Jesus was passing by.
That is the composite nature of conversion: first turn from sin, then turn to the Lord.
Turn from sin, try to correct the ravages it has caused in your life; which is what Isaiah proclaimed in those 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 do that in order to 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-Catholics to simply apply themselves to turning from sin without turning to the Lord, then, that could lead to paranoia. Were they, on the other hand, to simply proclaim the glory of the Lord without any serious endeavour to reject and avoid sin, such praise would be hypocritical, 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: is the glory of the Lord being revealed to you? Do you, as you grow older, 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 in calling and guiding you to Jesus? Do you find yourself gradually more willing to trust Him completely, to trust Him alone? Do you aspire, more and more, to know, love, and serve Him with your whole being? If you can say “Yes” to questions such as those then, indeed, you are both sincerely repenting, and truly seeking the face of the Lord; and, moreover, I could confidently say that the glory of the Lord is, indeed, being gradually revealed to you and in you.
But what if -- as the years go by, when you seriously look at yourself and sincerely question yourself before God -- you recognize that you are thinking less and less of Jesus because you are increasingly absorbed in worldly interests and aspirations; that you are more and more preoccupied by cares about money and people’s opinions or attitudes in your regard, and less and less attentive to God speaking through your conscience or drawing upon 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 by 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? Are you gradually becoming tolerant of failings you are aware of -- you might like to call them ‘mere peccadillos’ -- in your daily living?
All these things are quite possible where Christian people are found no longer looking to God, for God, but looking at others, and looking after themselves.
People of God, let us briefly recall all three of our Scripture readings today: first of all we heard the prophecy of Isaiah made over 2500 years ago; then, in the Gospel, John the Baptist more than fulfilled that prophetic desire by preparing the way for the coming of the Lord Who would baptize in the Holy Spirit; and we also heard St. Peter telling us that that Holy Spirit of Jesus is at work in us today preparing us for the ultimate and glorious manifestation of Our Lord; and assuring us most emphatically that many intervening years should in no way dishearten us, for:
With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.
Therefore, 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 once again to welcome Jesus into our lives to renew them: that His truth might enlighten us, His love inspire us, and the Gift of His most Holy Spirit might protect, guide, and sustain us along His way to the Father. Time is irrelevant to God, it of this world, not of His heavenly Kingdom, our future home. What is essential for us, therefore, is that here and now, we have the will to prayerfully aspire to the blessings He prepares for us, and the humility and fortitude to forget our self-solicitude, and by our daily prayer and Christian experience, learn to rejoice as He gradually makes them real for us.
Dear People of God, may your Advent preparations and Christmas celebration thus lead you to fulfil, in all things and at all times, St. Peter’s injunction:
Waiting for the coming of (Our Lord and) God, you ought to be (found) conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion; eager to be found at peace, without spot or blemish before Him.