Fr. Roger J. Landry
Our Lady of Victory Parish, Manhattan
Advent Meditations on the Four Great Figures of Advent
“The Precursor and the Precursor of the Precursor”
December 6, 2016
To listen to an audio recording of tonight’s meditation, please click below:
The following points guided the meditation:
- Importance of Advent to get us to appreciate what we’re doing. We enter into the waiting of the Jews for the Messiah, the waiting of Mary and Joseph for the birth of Jesus, the waiting of John the Baptist for the one to come whose sandal he wasn’t worthy to tie, the waiting of the Church for Jesus’ second coming, all of which are meant to inform the way we await and respond to Jesus in the present.
- These Advent series of Meditations are designed to focus on the four great figures of Advent: The Precursor of the Precursor, Isaiah, whose thoughts nourish the daily meditation of Christians throughout this season as they nourished the expectation of the Jews for centuries; the Forerunner himself, St. John the Baptist, whose message and life the Church ponders on the Second and Third Sundays of Advent; St. Joseph whose waiting was inspired by God through his angel and very much informs our own; and the Blessed Virgin, whose waiting exemplified the Daughter of Zion and who wants to help us relive her mystery in Christ. There are three types of preparation: remote, proximate and immediate. Isaiah is a great figure for the remote; John the Baptist for the proximate; and Mary and Joseph for the immediate. Originally I had hoped to give one night to each of the four, but last week there was the Mission of lower Manhattan taking place here and so tonight we’ll combine briefly the first two, on Isaiah and John.
- When we turn to these two figures, I’d like to summarize how they help us very simply in saying that both did two things for us:
- First, they announced the One for whom we are waiting and his characteristics; and
- Second, they proclaimed what we need to do to get ready for them.
- As we enter into what they gave us with regard to both, I’d urge you to apply it to the way that we look at the Lord Jesus coming for us and how we’re getting ready to go out to meet him and be so transformed by him that we will unite ourselves with him in continuing his Mission.
- The Prophet Isaiah
- More than any Old Testament Prophet, Isaiah announced the Messiah who was coming. Here’s what he said about him:
- He would be the shoot that sprung from the stump of Jesse.
- The Spirit of the Lord would be upon him, wisdom and understanding, counsel and courage, knowledge, awe and delight in the Lord.
- He would bring peace, helping us to treat each other not like lions and lambs in a state of nature, but in a renewed way.
- He would purge filth from our midst.
- He would be among us like the smoking cloud and light of fire of God’s presence for the Jews in the desert.
- He would make the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk again, the mute speak. He would strengthen would feeble hands, make firm weak knees, embolden fearful hearts, and help everyone keep his holy name.
- He would give “bread” to the hungry and “water” to the thirsty and prepare a feast for us on his holy mountain.
- He would teach us and lead us.
- He would comfort his people and speak tenderly to us that our guilt will be expiated.
- He would feed his flock like a shepherd, gather the lambs in his arms, and lead the ewes with care.
- He would help us not to grow weary and renew our strength.
- He would tell us, “This is the way. Walk in it” and then lead us to the highway that is called the Holy Way on which no one unclean could pass, for those with a journey to make and on which the redeemed shall walk.
- He would espouse Israel and would rejoice in marrying us like a bridegroom rejoices in his bride.
- He would be our Savior. We would “behold our God to whom he looked to save us” and proclaim, “This is the One for whom we looked.”
- He would be called Wonder Counselor, God-hero, Father-forever, Prince of Peace and be our Light.
- He would be called Emmanuel, God-with-us.
- How are we to prepare?
- Let us climb the mountain of the Lord. Prepared for exertion, to be fed by him.
- He will summon to turn our swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.
- He will call us to trust in the Lord forever.
- He will challenge us to keep the Lord’s name holy.
- He will help us to hearken to his commands.
- He will strengthen us to keep his Covenant and live the Sabbath.
- And he will challenge us to prepare for all of this so that his glory shall be revealed such that all mankind may see it together, saying, in words that John the Baptist would make even more famous: “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. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together.”
- More than any Old Testament Prophet, Isaiah announced the Messiah who was coming. Here’s what he said about him:
- St. John the Baptist
- John does the same two-fold service, announcing from his womb, from his public ministry and even in his death, the One who was coming and his qualities and then helping us to get ready to meet him. What does this cousin of the Lord who when he appeared at the Jordan was clothed in camel hear with a leather belt eating locusts and wild honey have to say to us?
- Jesus testified about him: “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.’ Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
- About Jesus
- He said he would be one from among them “whom you do not recognize.”
- The reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel
- Mightier than I
- Ranks ahead of me because he existed before me
- Not worthy to stoop, loosen or carry his sandals
- I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is … 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.”
- 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.”
- Behold the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
- A voice from heaven came at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
- “I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”
- How are we to prepare?
- Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand
- Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins
- Ax lies at the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
- Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths
- John wants to help us clear the way not only for Jesus to come but for us to follow. 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. Whenever 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, hassle, or a roller-coaster ride. In using the analogy of preparing the way, John the Baptist was telling the people 2,000 years ago and us today at the beginning of 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 in the wilderness, but within. The work is not something that will make our hands dirty, but our souls clean. Echoing the prophet Isaiah (Is 40:4), John 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 because of the details of shopping or hobbies or even our various modern addictions in which we place television programs, or sports teams, videogames or social media above him, now’s the time to get our priorities straight.
- 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 indicated at the Jordan, 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. John the Baptist’s task is to convince us of that need and then to point out the One who can heal us from our spiritual illnesses.
- 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. Through the continuing work of the Baptist in the Church, he announces he’s coming and he gives us the chance to clean our house to welcome fittingly such a guest. To understand the conversion God chose and sent John the Baptist to help us to make, it’s helpful to remember an extraordinary address by the future Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in 2000 to a group of Catechists who had come to Rome to celebrate the Jubilee Year. In a speech about how we’re supposed to live and proclaim the Gospel today, the future Pope said, “The fundamental content of the Old Testament is summarized in the message by John the Baptist: metanoete – Convert! There is no access to Jesus without the Baptist; there is no possibility of reaching Jesus without answering the call of the precursor. Rather, Jesus took up the message of John in the synthesis of His own preaching: [repent and believe]. The Greek word for converting means: to rethink; to question one’s own and common way of living; to allow God to enter into the criteria of one’s life; to judge not merely according to the current opinions. So to convert means not to live as all the others live, not to do what all do, not to feel justified in dubious, ambiguous, evil actions just because others do the same. It means to begin to see one’s life through the eyes of God, and so to look for the good, even if uncomfortable, not aiming at the judgment of the majority, of men, but at the justice of God. In other words, [to convert means] to look for a new style of life, a new life.” The whole process of conversion, he concluded, requires “the humility to entrust oneself to the love of [God], a love that becomes the measure and the criteria of my own life.” Notice what Cardinal Ratzinger was not saying. He wasn’t saying that the conversion that God wants of us is just a minor course correction in our life, as if all God wants of us is to eliminate a bad habit like using foul language, or gossiping, or not praying every day. No, God through the Baptist is asking something much greater. He’s asking for us to adopt Christ’s way of living as our own. Conversion means to hear Jesus saying to us, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and resolving to follow him fully along that path. To recognize that Jesus is the answer to the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?,” means to convert so that we strive to live our whole life in communion with him, clearing from our life whatever keeps us from him, and filling our life with everything — prayer, the sacraments, good friends, spiritual reaction, virtuous behavior — that will help us keep communion. God-with-us, Emmanuel, has come into our world to be with us full-time, accompanying us in our journeys, guiding us with his rod and staff, with his courage and grace, along the road of holiness to the Father’s eternal house. John the Baptist today helps us to see that the definitive answer to our deepest hopes has been given and he wants to urge us to follow him all the way. Today as he says to us anew later in this Mass, “Ecce Agnus Dei. Ecce qui tollit peccata mundi!,” let us as for the grace of true conversion, which means to turn away from sin, to turn toward Jesus and then literally to “turn with” (con-vertere) Jesus all our days. Jesus indeed is the one. Blessed are those who take no offense at him.
- Both figures help us to focus on Jesus coming for us and how we’re called to go out to meet him. Let’s prepare the way as well as we have ever done anything in our life.
- Over the next two weeks we’ll ponder the example of two — Joseph and Mary — who did prepare that way.