“PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE STRAIGHT HIS PATHS.”
Once, when a conference of ministers was held in a certain town, a certain old preacher sat quietly through it for a number of days until, toward the end of the conference, he was suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to speak. He arose thoughtfully and almost stumblingly fumbled for his words. Finally, his thoughts took form, his words fell in the rhythm of a marching column, and his impassioned oratory beat down upon the upturned faces of his audience until, as he arose to his peroration and reached his climax, the whole sedate conference broke into a spontaneous applause that shook the room, according to an item in Printer’s Ink.
He had delivered the master oration of the conference. When finally the applause subsided, a cocky young Doctor of Divinity strolled up to him. “That was a masterly address you delivered extemporaneously. Yet you must have had some preparation to have done it so well. How long did it take you to prepare it?”
The older man looked gently for some time at the younger one before he answered. And then he said: “Sixty years, young man, sixty years!”
We are in the Holy Season of Advent and today is the second Sunday. Every year, on this day, as preparation for Christmas, the Church leads us on pilgrimage to the Jordan River, so that we might enroll in the school of John the Baptist, hear his message, and put it into action in our lives. At first glance, it seems like a strange choice to meet him at the Jordan, 30 years after Christ’s birth, millennia before his Second Coming. But the reason why the Church always visits John at the Jordan is because he was the one chosen by God the Father from all eternity to get his people ready to receive his Son, who was already walking toward the Jordan River to inaugurate his public ministry. The Gospel Reading of today from St. Matthew presents John the Baptist as our model for Advent preparation; he is the precursor who announced the Lord’s coming and who prepared the people by preaching them the ‘baptism of repentance.’ In the First Reading of today, we hear that Isaiah prophesied him as “A voice of one crying out in the desert; Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
A MESSIANIC PROPHESY:
The First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is a Messianic prophesy. To a distressed people languishing in exile, the prophet offers words of comfort and hope. He sees a new beginning for the royal line of David. In the wake of the Babylonian exile only a stump of the Davidic dynasty remains. From this “stump of Jesse” will spring forth a shoot, that of the Messianic King. Jesse was the father of King David from whom the Judean kings descended. The prophet says that the spirit of the Lord will rest upon him. Here, the prophet is providing a picture of a Messianic era when paradise would be restored. The new reign will be marked by peace, justice, and knowledge of God that extends to all the nations. The fascinating image of animal enemies living together in peace is a powerful presage of the world as God would have it – marked with serenity, harmony and the fullness of joy. Isaiah warns us that the Messiah will judge us by his righteousness and with peace he will rule the earth. He is filled with the wisdom and insight, counsel and power, knowledge and fear of the Lord.
Isaiah concludes the passage of today by saying, “On that day, the root of Jesse” – the one who comes from Jesse, that is, Jesus – “will be raised as a signal for the nation. The people from everywhere will come in search of him thus making his dwelling place glorious.” In Jesus, the incarnate word and wisdom of God, this oracle of Isaiah has become a flesh-and-blood reality. Jesus came to be a sign to all the nations of what could happen. To bring peace into our world. His reign of peace has indeed begun but has yet to be appropriated and accepted by all. Isaiah was his herald but we are the ambassadors of his reign; as such, we are reminded once again today, that the fullness of his peace and justice will come only when all the people of the earth are led to seek him, to turn from evil and know him.
EXHORTATION TO LIVE IN PEACE AND HARMONY:
In the Second Reading of today from his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul calls for reconciliation among the different factions in that community. Aware of the differences which characterized the Roman communities and in order to safeguard against a splintering of their tenuous union, he calls for peace, harmony and mutual acceptance. For their edification and inspiration, he tells the believers in Rome that they could avail themselves of two main resources, viz. the Scriptures and Christ himself:
The Scriptures are filled with instructions and patient encouragement “that we might have hope.” These scriptures prepared them to receive Christ and tell them that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
Another resource is the example of Christ himself who welcomed and accepted everyone, regardless of race, gender, class, or degree of holiness. Paul talks about how Jesus brought reconciliation and peace. He talks about how Jesus came to serve Jew and Gentile alike. He talks about how Jesus…the Savior…came so all might live in peace and harmony.
So, in order to realize personally this hope of saving glory in Christ, we are to live in harmony with one another and thus glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this Advent season then, let us resolve to walk on the just path. Following St. Paul’s exhortation, let us welcome one another and be kind to one another, in imitation of Jesus Christ, the hope and object of our Advent expectation.
Therefore St. John is a prophet who prepared the people of his time for the coming of Jesus, by summoning them to repentance and opening them to the Kingdom of God in its fullness.
But of course the coming of Jesus for which St. John prepared them has been fulfilled. And thus, for us who ponder John’s office, we need to realize that the coming of Christ for which we must be ready is his Second Coming.
Who is “John the Baptist” for us? Surely it is the Church, which Christ founded to prepare a people for him and draw us from darkness to light. But of course we experience the Church, not as an abstraction, but more locally in our Bishop, priests and deacons. Further we experience the Church in our parents and catechists. Through them all, the Church fulfills her mission to be a Prophet who prepares us.
And further, if you are prepared to accept it, YOU are also called to be a prophet who prepares others for the coming of Christ as judge. You do not work independent of the Church (at least you better not!). Rather the Church works through you.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of our prophetic office in the following way:
[the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God. (CCC, 1270)
So, we have an obligation to evangelize and to be prophets in this world who prepare others for judgement day. We are called to go before the Judge who is to follow and prepare the hearts of people we know.
But how can we do this effectively? What are the some of the essential ingredients of being a prophet who prepares? The ministry of St. John the Baptist in today’s Gospel provides four Principles of Powerful Prophecy: Poise, Product, Purity, Person.
I. Poise: Poise here refers to balance. The text says, John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Note the content of John’s preaching is twofold. He first says, “Repent!” And then adds, “For the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Here is a balance to get right. The preacher and the prophet must speak frankly of sin and call people to repentance. But the prophet must also speak of the grace available to conquer that sin and the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven is now open and available. Hence John the Baptist is willing and able to declare the reality of sin and the necessity of repenting from it. But he is also able to declare the availability of the Kingdom wherein one is able to find the grace to overcome sin.
Too many preachers, catechists and even parents lack this balance. In the past, some argue, that sermons were all fire and brimstone. Today it is too often, the steady diet “God is love” with little reference to the need to repent. This is one explanation of why our Churches have emptied in the past 40 years.
This is because the good news only has relevance and significance if the bad news is first understood. If you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news. To illustrate, suppose you are looking at a newspaper and see a headline that announces a cure for a deadly disease has been found. But what if you have never heard of this disease and don’t even know you have it? It is not likely you will read the article, it will be only of passing interest. But, now suppose you know of this disease, and that you have it, and you know others who have it. Suddenly this headline jumps out, is very relevant, causes joy and is an article to read very carefully by you! Because you know very personally the bad news of the disease, the good news of the cure now means everything to you.
It is the same with the Kingdom. We have to know the bad news of sin in a very personal and profound way if the Good News of Salvation is going to be appreciated. But in the Church we have lately soft-pedaled the bad news. Thus the Good News is irrelevant to people and the medicine of the cure is pointless. Why pray, receive sacraments or read scripture if everything is really fine? Why bother coming to Church for all that stuff? Hence our Churches have emptied, in part, due to a lack of the proper balance of repent and the Kingdom of God is at hand.
If we are going to be powerful and effective prophets we are going to have to be able to speak frankly to others about the reality of sin and balance it with the joyful announcement of the Kingdom with its grace and mercy now being available. Prophecy must be proper by having the right balance.
Notice the St. John the Baptist wasn’t messing around and sugar-coating things. He was explicit, we need to repent or else. He spoke of a coming day of wrath and judgement for those who did not do so. He spoke of the axe being laid to the root of the tree. He spoke of fiery judgment, and unquenchable fire. And to the self-righteous he was not afraid to equate their pride with that of the ancient serpent, calling them vipers.
Too many are afraid to speak like this today, and therefore lack the balance necessary for a true preparing prophet. St. John joyfully announced the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God and the coming of the Messiah, but he spoke of repentance as the door of access. Do we have this balance, or do we preach mercy without repentance?
II. Product: The text says, At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
Here is the desired product of powerful prophecy: repentance unto salvation for all who believe. Prophets want to save people by drawing them to God’s grace, this is goal, the salvation of souls! Preparing prophets do not seek merely to scare people, they seek to prepare people.
To repent, to come to a new mind and heart by God’s grace, is to be prepared. This is the central work of the prophet who prepares and thus works to save others: repentance is unto salvation.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this aspect of prophecy and preaching. He is aware that he grieved some of them due to a strong rebuke he gave the community (cf 1 Cor 5) but he is glad that it produced a godly sorrow which in turn produced repentance and holiness. He also distinguishes between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow:
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation [at sin], what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done…..By all this we are encouraged. (2 Cor 7:8-13)
An old priest once told me, “Never think you have preached well unless the line to the confessional is long.” Good preaching, among other things produces repentance unto salvation. It may cause some to be mad or sad, but if it is proper prophecy, it will produce a godly sorrow and the madness and sadness gives way to gladness. Here is the expected product of proper preaching: repentance unto salvation.
III. Purity: The text says: When [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “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 ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
John the Baptist had no fear of people’s opinion and would not compromise the message based on his audience. All the credentials of the temple leaders did not impress him. Neither did the status of the Jews as the chosen people cause him to soften his message. John had no fear of human opinion, no need for the good favor of others, especially the rich and powerful.
Because of this his preaching had purity. He did not compromise the message out of fear or the need to flatter others. He spoke boldly, plainly and with love and desire for the ultimate salvation of all. If that called for strong medicine he was willing to do it.
The ancient martyrs went to their death proclaiming Christ but many of us moderns are afraid even of someone raising their eyebrows at us. Fear is a great enemy of powerful prophecy for by it many remain silent when they should speak. The fear of what other people may think causes many to compromise the truth and even sin against it. This sort of fear has to go if our prophecy is going to have the purity necessary to reach the goal.
IV. Person: The text says, 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. 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.
John’s audience and disciples were fascinated by him, and drawn by his charisma. But as they want to know more about him, John talks instead about Jesus. That’s the message, “Jesus, not me.” If we are going to be powerful prophets the message has got to be about Jesus, not about me and what I think. We are not out to win an argument and boost our own egos. We are not out to become famous. We are about Jesus Christ and his gospel, his message, his truth. John said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). A prophet speaks for the Lord, not himself. A prophet announces God’s agenda not his own. A prophet is about Jesus.
You are now a preparing prophet whom the Lord seeks. Someone was John the Baptist for you. Someone brought you to Christ. Thank God for that individual or those individuals. But you too are to be John the Baptist for others. Learn from John, apply his principles and make disciples for Jesus Christ.
Advent is fascinating – a beautiful season of the Liturgical Year. In it we experience transforming newness. Through the liturgy of the 2nd Sunday of Advent, we are invited to tread the path of repentance and conversion – the just path that leads to hope and the heavenly kingdom that is the goal of Advent expectation. We therefore listen attentively to the word of God ‘that we might have hope’ and that ‘the divine reign of justice and peace’ might come upon us.
Today the Church chooses John the Baptist as the personification of the Advent theme as he preaches repentance, transformation of the heart and reform of our lives and invites us to reflect on his prophecy as a preparation for the celebration of the birth of the Savior. Christmas is a worldwide feast that many people prepare for in different ways. For many it is a time for family reunions, for others it is a time of increased business when people travel more and shop more. We too join the world to prepare to celebrate Christmas as a social event. But the best preparation for the event is the spiritual preparation. We prepare ourselves to celebrate the event when God assumed our nature to take our sins away and to enable us to share in his divine nature. There is no better preparation than that of conversion, of repentance.
If we look at today’s gospel, we can see John calling people to reform their lives. He wants them to free themselves from those things that turn them away from God. However, if we look at this as a static process, then we miss the point. John is not only announcing the coming of the Messiah, he is also announcing the coming of the next stage of the salvation process. Humanity has evolved now to the point where the process can begin. So he is calling his listeners to reform their lives that the Kingdom of God is at hand. As John the Baptist told the people in his day, so he tells us today. He makes the same call to us. Either repent and turn more to the Lord or walk away and follow other paths. The choice belongs to each of us, each and every day. And this is the Good News of today.
“Advent is a journey towards Bethlehem. May we let ourselves be drawn
by the light of God made Man.” Pope Francis
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.