Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
Second Sunday of Advent, Extraordinary Form
December 6, 2015
Rom 15:4-13, Mt 11:2-10
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
On the second and the third Sunday of Advent, the Church always has us focus on the figure of St. John the Baptist. Today Jesus identifies John as the one about whom the Prophets Isaiah and Malachi said, “Behold I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare the way before you.” John’s work was to prepare the way for Jesus and then to point him out when at last he came. He did the latter first in the womb, leaping for joy at Christ’s in utero presence. He did it when Jesus came to him at the Jordan River and John exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!,” leading Saints Andrew and John the Evangelist to leave the Baptist and follow Christ. Later, in the scene we have in today’s Gospel, the Baptist sends the disciples who were clinging to him when he was in prison to go to visit Jesus, who was performing all of the works Isaiah had preannounced the Messiah would accomplish, to ask, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” Was their long Messianic Advent over? Jesus asked them to discern via the signs he was performing, which also included raising the dead. His words at the end of that dialogue might seem to be an upbraid to John and his disciples — “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me!” — but those words, like the words Jesus said immediately afterward, that John was the greatest born of woman, that he was more than a prophet, that he was the long-awaited precursor who would announce the coming of the Messiah, were words of praise. John was precisely blessed because he had taken no offense in Jesus. Unlike the Scribes and Pharisees who when Jesus worked the miracles of making the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers have newborn skin, the dead live, and the poor and sinners receive the good news, accused him of doing them by the power of the prince of demons, who castigated him for supposedly violating the Sabbath, who continued to ask him for other signs by which they could get him arrested and executed, John took no offense, and even though he was in a Herodian prison cell, he sent his attached disciples to Jesus to find in him the one to whom John’s whole life — and even his imprison and death — would point. Today John continues to point out Jesus to us and wants us to enter into conversation with him, to consider all of his works, to not be scandalized by the way he exercises his salvific ministry, but in fact to be blessed for our faith in him.
But I would like to spend more of our time not on the Baptist’s work of pointing Jesus out but of his getting us ready, like he got his and Jesus’ contemporaries ready, to follow Jesus unreservedly when he points him out. Because unless we allow John to do this work, we won’t and won’t be able to follow Jesus. Jesus says that John is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.” And when John first began his public work at the Jordan, he identified himself as the actualization of Isaiah’s words, the “a voice of One crying out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” In the ancient world, the roads were a mess. Every time there was a battle, the roads would be attacked and bridges destroyed, to try to stop the advance of the enemy. The weather took its toll as well, leading to all types of potholes and other obstacles. Any time a dignitary would be coming, they would have either to fix the roads or build new ones so that the rolling caravan accompanying him could arrive without delay or hassle. John the Baptist was telling the people 2000 years ago what he tells us at the beginning of every Advent, that we need spiritually to prepare a similar way for Christ to come. We, too, need to make straight the paths. In the ancient world, preparing such a path meant a great deal of manual work, making crooked paths straight, rough ways smooth, and even charting paths through the mountains and valleys. For us, that pathway will not be traced on the ground or in the wilderness, but within. The work is not something that will make our hands dirty, but our souls clean. What John the Baptist is calling us to is conversion.
Preaching conversion is the mission of the Baptist, which is why we encounter him every Advent, because without conversion we cannot really meet Christ who is coming to us in history in Bethlehem, in mystery in prayer and the sacraments, or in majesty at the end of our lives and at the end of time. The reason why conversion is indispensable is because, as John later indicated, Jesus is the Lamb of God who has come into the world to take away our sins. The very name “Jesus” means, “God saves,” and he saves us precisely from our sins and what our sins lead to, death. In order for us to appreciate our Savior and what he did for us, we have to realize that we are sinners who need a Savior, who need Jesus to save us from our sins. And John the Baptist’s task is to convince us of that need.
Echoing the prophet Isaiah (Is 40:4), John the Baptist says, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth” (Lk 3:5). It’s key to call those topographical formations by their proper names. We have to make low the mountains of our pride and egocentrism. We have to fill in the valleys that come from a shallow prayer life and a minimalistic way of living our faith. We have to straighten out whatever crooked paths we’ve been walking: if we’ve been involved in some secret sins or living a double life, the Lord calls us through John the Baptist to end it; if we’ve been involved in some dishonest practices, we’re called to straighten them out and do restitution; if we’ve been harboring grudges or hatred, or failing to reconcile with others, now’s the time to clear away all the debris; and if we’ve been pushing God off the side of the road, if we’ve been saying to Him that we don’t really have the time for him, now’s the time to get our priorities straight.
Often when we and our contemporaries hear the call to conversion, to repentance, to penance, we can respond negatively, as if what we’re being asked to do is to focus on the “bad news” of all of our sins and failures. But the call to conversion is actually a crucial part of the Good News, because it’s an expression of God’s love giving us a second chance, or a third chance, or a 70 times 7th chance. It’s an announcement that the King is coming and wants to meet us, but he doesn’t want to ambush us by visiting us when our spiritual house is a disaster area deserving of FEMA funds. Through the work of the Baptist and the Church, he announces he’s coming and he gives us the chance to clean our house to welcome fittingly such a guest. The call to conversion is a proclamation that no matter what we’ve done, God’s forgiveness is greater than all our filth, his mercy is greater than any and every human misery.
And that brings us to something truly awesome that is beginning this Tuesday on the Solemnity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Pope Francis will be inaugurating the Jubilee Year of Mercy that will extend until the Solemnity of Christ the King next November. It’s fitting that the special 349-day celebration begins on the day of the Immaculate Conception, because it was on that day that the human race was first touched by God’s saving mercy, which Mary received preveniently in her soul about 48 years before her Son eternally poured out that mercy for us on the Cross. She was full of grace from the first moment of her life, which means full of God. God’s plan for us was not that we be immaculately conceived, but through the Sacraments of Baptism, Penance, and the Eucharist, through prayer and charity, it is God’s plan for us that we be full of grace, too, full of his loving mercy and presence. I’m convinced that if we could hear John the Baptist today here on 43rd Street in Manhattan, he would tell us how lucky we are to have a Year of Mercy, a year in which we can not only ponder the love of God in sending his Son to die on the Cross to take away our sins and make eternal life possible, but to receive that forgiveness more fruitfully and obtain God’s help to bring others — including those family members and friends who are far from God — to receive it too. If the extraordinary apostles of the confessional — Saints John Vianney, Padre Pio, John Nepomuc, Leopoldo Mandic, Joseph Cafasso, Philip Neri and all the holy priests who have heard confessions over the course of the centuries — were able to speak to us in unison, they’d say how jealous they are of priests today. If the souls in Purgatory were able to be here, they would speak to us incessantly about how fortunate we are and urge us not to receive this grace in vain. And if we could hear God speaking, he would, I’m convinced, say, that he’s been waiting from all eternity for this year. Jesus told us that heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than 99 righteous persons who never needed to repent. Forgiving his children, welcoming them back with love like the Father in the parable welcomed back his Prodigal Son, is God’s greatest joy, and God already sees the confessions you and I will be making, the confessions of the people we’ll help him bring back to his grace and communion, and I’m convinced that this will be a year of great fatherly merciful jubilation for him as well.
How are we to live this Year of Mercy well? I hope to have a chance to speak about this in greater detail in future Masses, but I would briefly like to urge you to do three things:
- First, come to receive God’s mercy more frequently and more profoundly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Pope Francis constantly tells us that he goes every two weeks. Personally, I go every Thursday. I’d urge you to go at least twice a month. And prepare to go so that your confessions are the best in your life. Examine your life in the light of God. Beg him for the gift of sorrow. Ask him to heal you of your wounds and weakness and to fill you with amendment and strength. And come. You’ll make God rejoice and he will fill you with his joy!
- Second, get to know and live what Jesus revealed to St. Faustina in the 1930s about growing in love of his mercy. He wanted his mercy adored, in a similar way that we adore his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in Eucharistic Adoration. And he revealed five practices to do so.
- He asked us to stop what we’re doing every day at 3 pm, the moment he mercifully died for us on the Cross, and unite ourselves to his mercy. It can be just a minute. Set your phone alarm. Simply say, “I unite myself to your mercy, O Lord, for me and for the world.”
- Second he asked us to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, offering to the Father Jesus in the Eucharist in expiation for our sins and those of the whole world. It takes just a few minutes. I’d urge you to try to pray this every day.
- Third, he wanted us to behold his mercy and he showed St. Faustina an image with the rays of his mercy, as blood and water, coming from his heart, with his blessing us, and with the words, “Jesus, I trust in you!” I’d urge you to have a copy of this at your home, or at work, or as a book mark, so that wherever you pray you can simply glance on him blessing us in his mercy and entrusting ourselves to that love.
- Fourth, he asked us to make a novena to his mercy between Good Friday and the first Sunday after Easter, which is Divine Mercy Sunday. In that novena, we pray for nine different groups of people — sinners and all mankind, priests and religious, the devout and faithful, pagans and those who do not yet know Jesus, heretics and schismatics, humble souls, those who venerate his mercy, the souls in Purgatory and the lukewarm — and I’d urge you not only to plan to make this novena then, but to take one group of these people and pray each day continuously over the course of the year.
- Finally, he asked for us to celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday as a great celebration. I’d urge you to circle April 3 on your calendar and make the plans to maximize the celebration that day.
- And the third and last practice I’d propose is that throughout this year, you make the time to do each and every one of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy at least once. These are the ways we put God’s merciful love into action: giving alms, feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless, visiting and praying for the imprisoned, caring for the sick, burying and praying for the dead, teaching the ignorant and counseling the doubtful, consoling the sorrowful and comforting the afflicted, bearing wrongs patiently and forgiving those who have hurt us, and calling other sinners back to God’s mercy. As a couple, as a family, as parish groups, or individually, plan to share God’s mercy in each of these ways, knowing that the more we open ourselves up to sharing God’s mercy, the more we open ourselves up to receive it.
The Eucharist is Jesus’ great corporal and spiritual work of mercy. Having been prepared for him by the work of conversion announced by St. John the Baptist, having come to the Lamb of God to be cleansed by him of our sins, we are now able to approach the long-awaited Messiah and Lord, the Savior, the same Jesus who came in Bethlehem and will come on the clouds of heaven. This is where Jesus feeds our deepest hunger, clothes us with himself and his virtues, sets us free from doubt and ignorance, heals so many of our deepest wounds, and makes us so rich in his mercy that we can lavishly go out to the world and share that mercy with others. Today, John the Baptist points us to Christ in all his mercy and says, “Ecce Agnus Dei. Ecce qui tollit peccata mundi!” And he sends us to him because Jesus is the One and we don’t need to await any other.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans.
For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles and sing praises to your name.” And again it says: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” And again: “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him.” And again Isaiah says: “The root of Jesse shall come, raised up to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the holy Spirit.
The continuation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew
When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus said to them in reply, “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. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” 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? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.’