The Comfort of God’s Mercy and the Conversion Required to Receive It, Second Sunday of Advent (B), December 7, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Second Sunday in Advent, Year B
December 7, 2014
Is 40:1-5.9-11, Ps 85, 2 Pet 3:8-14, Mk 1:1-8

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following text guided the homily: 

Advent Consolation

“Comfort, give comfort to my people,” God tells Isaiah today in the first reading. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Proclaim to her that …her guilt is expiated. … Go up on to a high mountain [and] cry out at the top of your voice … ‘Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God. … Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gather the lambs, carrying them in his bosom and leading the ewes with care.”

The message of Advent is a message of consolation. God is coming with power to expiate our guilt. He’s coming as a Shepherd to feed us, to gather us into his arms, to go in search for us when we’re lost and carry us back on his shoulders. He’s coming ultimately to die for us as a Good Shepherd who lays down his life to save the lives of his sheep. But this action of God is not the only movement of Advent: we need to be ready for this coming of the Lord and go out to meet him. We need to be awake, alert and willing to receive his gift of expiation. We need to open ourselves to the consolation God came, still comes, and will come definitely into the world to bring.

The one sent to help us to get ready to receive this gift is St. John the Baptist. Every year on the second and third Sundays of Advent, the Church leads us on pilgrimage to the Jordan River, so that we might enroll anew in St. John the Baptist’s school, hear his message and put it into action in our lives. John was chosen by God the Father from all eternity to get his people ready to receive His Son, who at the time John was preaching was already in a sense walking toward the Jordan River to inaugurate his public ministry. Advent literally means “coming toward” and St. John the Baptist has the mission to get us ready to go out to embrace the Lord who is coming to us in history in Bethlehem, in mystery especially through the Sacraments, and in majesty on the clouds of heaven. And the way John seeks to help us to get ready to embrace Jesus who is coming is through is deep, total, sincere conversion.

Consolation comes through the Encounter with the Lord that happens only through Conversion 

St. Mark tells us that John the Baptist appeared in the desert “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and the people were responding in huge numbers. The whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized “as they acknowledged their sins.” Dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, he was proclaiming a message of repentance and reparation not just with his words but with his body language. St. Mark sees him as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy from the first reading, “I am sending my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his paths.’” John was not the one crying out in the desert, but the voice, the loudspeaker, the sound system, of the “one crying out in the desert.” The one crying out in the desert was the very person to whom John referred at the end of today’s Gospel, the “one mightier than I” who “is coming after me,” whose sandals he was not worthy to stoop and loosen, the one who would “baptize with the Holy Spirit.” That Word for whom John was the voice is Jesus himself. This is why it’s no surprise that John the Baptist’s words of repentance fore-echoed Jesus’ own first words, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” John was preparing the way for Jesus because he was announcing the need for conversion and for faith, which are the prerequisites for receiving Jesus’ salvation, for becoming Jesus’ disciples, for receiving the love and consolation he wants to give us.

John’s description of the process of conversion as “preparing the way of the Lord and making straight his paths” is very instructive. 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 serious 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 the dignitary could arrive without delay and without hassle. In order to embrace Jesus at his coming, we need to prepare a way by making our crooked paths straight, rough ways smooth, and even charting paths through the mountains of pride and the valleys of a shallow prayer life and spiritual minimalism. For any of us who have seen the length of time it has been taking to do the ramp work around the Braga Bridge, we recognize that this path of building new roads isn’t easy, cheap or quick! It requires a lot of hard work. It involves far more than removing a little debris; it involves long days and long nights. That’s the hard work required to straighten out our paths. We won’t be able to receive the depth of God’s comfort, we won’t be able to embrace Jesus our Good Shepherd in a new life as he comes, unless we actually do this work.

What Christian Conversion really means

When we begin to talk about the conversion God sends John the Baptist to help us to make, I think back to one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever read. It was given in the year 2000 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, 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 that the first part of the message the Church needs to bring to the world is the message of John the Baptist, the message of Christ, namely, “to repent and believe.” And he described what that conversion really is all about: “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 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, [it 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 is not saying. He’s not saying that the conversion that God wants of us is not just a minor course correction in our life, as if all God wants of us is to eliminate a bad like using foul language, or gossiping, or not praying every day. No, God 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.

One of the biggest challenges for the Church today is that so many Christians are trying to live like everyone else rather than as Christ does, than as the saints do. Instead of allowing our faith to be leaven that lifts the whole world up, we are permitting the toxins of the world enter our homes and even our Churches. We take our categories not from God but from worldly gurus. The world doesn’t like conversion, so we downplay our need for it, pretending that we’re not sinners or, if we recognize the obvious that we are, pretending as if we don’t need God’s forgiveness or that we don’t need to receive it in the way he himself established in the Sacrament of Confession. The world doesn’t like the worship of God because it wants to worship the self and so it finds the Mass “boring” and rejects it because it doesn’t entertain them; the fact that it’s geared toward pleasing God rather than pleasing us allows them to dismiss it. The world doesn’t like the commitment of marriage, that God created marriage in the beginning as the union of one man and one woman, open to life, enduring until death, and so it tries to change the meaning of marriage in various ways and makes no fault divorce laws, presuming that marriages just break down without anyone’s fault, making marriage a commitment for as long as the two shall love rather than as long as the two shall live. The world doesn’t like the idea of a Church founded by God with a structure and a leader who speaks in Jesus’ name; the world prefers that the Church be “democratic” so that we, rather than God, determine what’s right and what’s wrong.

In short, despite its lip service that we believe in and love God, the world really doesn’t believe in and love God, especially Jesus’ standard of behavior. It really doesn’t want to live as Jesus calls us to live. If you think this is an overly pessimistic assessment, please just look at how most people, including most Catholics, regard the standard of Christian behavior Jesus gives us at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says to be happy we need to be poor in spirit, whereas the world says we need to be rich. Jesus says to be blessed we need so sensitive to others that we mourn for them, whereas the world says to be blessed we should turn everything into a joke. Jesus says we’ll be content when we’re meek and make peace, whereas the world says we’ll be convent when we pummel anyone who has the stupidity to frustrate our plans. The world says we’ll be fulfilled when we give free reign to sexual indulgence and fantasy, whereas Christ says we’ll be fulfilled only when we’re pure of heart. The world says to be happy we need to be voted Miss Congeniality or Most Popular in our high school class, whereas Jesus says we’ll be blessed when we’re persecuted, even hated and killed, because of our fidelity to him and to the truth. Let’s be honest. How many people want to be poor, meek, chaste, mournful, peacemaking and persecuted with Jesus versus rich, powerful, popular, sexy, party animals apart from Jesus? How many people really want to choose Christ on the Cross over a wealthy, influential, , risqué, bacchanal Barabbas? Most people, including most Catholics, prefer to live by the standards of the world rather than by Jesus’ own way of life.

Today, out of love for us, God sends St. John the Baptist to us to call us to conversion. He tells us all of our need to turn away from our worldly standards, sins, and idols, to reach out for God’s mercy, and to begin truly believing in Jesus, trusting in what he taught, walking with him, basing our entire existence on him and spreading his words and lifestyle to others. Conversion, as the future Pope Benedict said, means to a revolution in the way we look at things (metanoia), to rethink and question our own way of life, to make the commitment not to live as the crowds live but as Christ and his saints live, not to feel justified simply because we can point to a poll that everyone else is living in a way contrary to the Gospel, but to begin to see our whole life through God’s eyes and to make the love of God and others for real the measure and the criteria of our existence.

Learning from the Consecrated how to convert from our idols

This is a message each of us is called to ponder and act upon in a more profound way the 14-month Year for Consecrated Life we began last week. Pope Francis said that this year is an opportunity for us not only to pray for those in religious and consecrated life but to imitate their virtues. They point out to us the way to convert from so many of our idols. To a world that places its treasure in mammon, that worships the golden calf and what money can buy, the consecrated by the vow of poverty proclaim that there’s a far more important wealth, the treasure of God’s kingdom. All of us need to learn that lesson! To a world that indulges in pleasure and runs away from the Cross, the consecrated by the vow of chastity make Christ’s unselfish love their own, imitating his laying down his life for God and others, showing us how to sacrifice ourselves for others’ good rather than sacrificing others for our gratification. We need that lesson, too! To a world that tries to make itself God, that abuses freedom and worships a radical autonomy and total independence from God, the consecrated through the vow of obedience show us that real freedom and real happiness come from saying to God, “Not my will, but thine be done,” and from imitating Jesus’ trusting obedience to the Father until death. We need that lesson perhaps most of all. The truth is that each of us needs to convert in some way from the materialism, the hedonism, and the radical libertarianism of the age in order to adopt Jesus’ way of life, which is a life of spiritual poverty, chaste love and trusting obedience. The graces of this Year for Consecrated Life are available to all of us to help us to do just that, but to receive this divine comfort, we need to repent from our failure to live out poverty, chastity and obedience in our own state of life, to open ourselves up to following the poor, chaste and obedience Christ, and to come to receive God’s help to reorder our desires and choices.

Receiving Forgiveness as the Goal of Conversion

That brings us to the last thing John the Baptist wants to do for us today. His mission was not merely to announce the need for repentance, but to point out how sins would be forgiven. A short time after the scene in today’s Gospel, he saw that “more powerful one… whose sandals he was unworthy to loosen” coming to him at the Jordan. He exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). If John were physically present here today, dressed in camel hair and his leather belt, he would say to us, “Behold the One of whom I was speaking! Behold the Lamb of God, who comes to take away your sins and the sins of the world” and his hands would point … to Christ’s presence in the Confessional through his priests. John the Baptist didn’t have the ability to forgive sins in God’s name, only to call others to recognize their need for forgiveness. But Jesus did have that power and on the night he rose from the dead, gave that power to his apostles and through them, to their successors and priestly collaborators. Jesus told the apostles that just as God the Father had sent him as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, so he was sending them. He breathed on them the Holy Spirit and told them, “Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven and those whose sins you retain are retained.” Jesus was imparting to them God’s own power to take away their sins and impart the grace to make our crooked ways straight and rough ways smooth, to level our mountains of ego and fill-in our valleys of past compromises and excuses, in short the grace to stop living as everyone else does and begin living by Jesus’ own standards. It’s in the confessional where the Lamb of God takes away our sins through the same priests through whom he gives us his body and blood in the Eucharist. Just like “people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” were going out to acknowledge their sins before John the Baptist, the Lord’s precursor, so this Advent people of the whole South Coast and all the inhabitants of Fall River should be forming lines outside the confessional to acknowledge their sins before the Lord’s minister.

One of the reasons why those lines are not yet out the door, Pope Francis said this morning in his Angelus meditation in St. Peter’s Square, is because so many of us are sadly afraid are of God’s mercy. “It is curious,” he said, “but so many times, we are afraid of consolation, of being consoled. In fact, we feel safer in sadness and desolation. Do you know why? Because in sadness, we feel almost like the protagonists. [We feel in control]. Instead, in consolation, the Holy Spirit is the protagonist, [The Holy Spirit is in control], it is He who consoles us, it is He who gives us the courage to come out of ourselves. It is He who brings us to the source of every true consolation, that is, the Father. And this is conversion.” He finished his appeal saying, “Please, let yourselves be consoled by the Lord! Let yourselves be consoled by the Lord!”

Pope Francis has been saying since the beginning of his Pontificate that God never tires of forgiving us but we tire of asking for forgiveness and has been praying that we will never tire of asking for what God never tires of giving. Pope Francis has said that God’s greatest joy is forgiving, that “the whole Gospel, all of Christianity” (Sept 15, 2013 Angelus) is summarized by God’s desire to forgive us. And that’s why we begin every liturgical year pondering this message, because how can we really be Christian if we’re rejecting “the whole Gospel” and “all of Christianity”? This is an important point. There are many Catholics who have come to believe that the Sacrament of Penance is an optional part of being Catholic, but Pope Francis is stressing it’s right at the absolute center, that what occurs is the “whole Gospel” and “all of Christianity.” Why’s that? Christianity involves the basic truths that we’re sinners in need of a Savior and that the Savior has come to take away our sins. And that’s precisely what happens in the Sacrament Jesus established on Easter Sunday evening so that we would experience the resurrection of being raised from the sins that kill us. What a comforting message, what a consoling truth, God’s saving love in the confessional is, but it’s only those who come to receive God’s mercy who experience that joy and comfort.

And so in union with Pope Francis, I make an appeal to everyone, but especially those who have been away from this Sacrament for far too long: Please come to receive God’s forgiveness this Advent. It’s the greatest Christmas gift you could give to God because, as Jesus himself said, “Heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than for 99 who never needed to repent.” If you want to give God the Christmas gift he really desires, come to confession, so that he can embrace you like the Father embraced his beloved child in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. If you’re afraid to come to me, I sincerely apologize that I have not been a good enough priest to convey to you how loved and embraced you will be when you come to God in that tribunal of mercy, but please don’t let your fear of me or of Fr. Nick or of any particular priest stop you from going to confession. Go to confession at the Shrine of LaSalette in Attleboro who hear almost non-stop throughout Advent. Go to the priests at one of the local parishes. But please just go! You’ll be so happy you did. God will be so happy you did! And know that it is the devil who is trying to get you to ignore this appeal from your pastor, from your Pope, from St. John the Baptist, ultimately from Christ. Please don’t let the devil keep you away from this sacrament any longer!

The Good News of the Call to Conversion!

The Lamb of God is coming toward us anew this Advent to take away our sins! That is why this message of the Baptist is such “Good News” and not bad news. This is the way God not only proclaims, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” but brings that consolation about. We’re sinners, yes, but God comes as our Good Shepherd to save us from those sins, if only we repent and go to him. It’s true that we’re not worthy to untie the straps of Jesus’ sandals. It’s true all the more that we’re not worthy to receive Him under our roof in Holy Communion. But the Lord wants to make us worthy by “saying the word” and “healing our souls” through the voice of his priests. Our conversion and reconciliation is the way the Lord wants us to prepare to celebrate his birth in Bethlehem, because it will allow him to be truly reborn in us this Christmas. Our conversion and reconciliation is the best way for us to prepare for his coming at the end of time, because through sacramental absolution we make ourselves ready no matter what day or hour he comes. Our conversion and reconciliation is the best way for us to prepare to receive him worthily in the Eucharist, because through the Sacrament of Confession God cleanses us so that we might be a fitting temple to receive and adore him. This is the comfort God wants to give us. This is the comfort he has sent John the Baptist to announce. This is the comfort that through his priests he wants each of us to have.

“On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh,” we sang to begin the Mass. “Awake and hearken for he brings glad tidings from the King of Kings,” we continued. Those glad tidings, that comfort, constituted the beautiful second verse, which we pray each of us will hear on good soil and act on: “Then cleansed be every soul from sin, make straight the way of God within. Prepare we in our hearts a home, where such a mighty guest may come.”

May each of us respond to God’s invitation this Advent to be consolingly cleansed from sin in Confession, to make straight God’s path to us, to prepare a home for Jesus and so get ready with Jesus at the end of time to enter the Home he has gone to prepare for us if only we respond to his graces fully to adopt his style of life and follow him who is the Way on the true and only path of happiness.

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 IS 40:1-5, 9-11

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.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.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.

Responsorial Psalm PS 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14

R/ (8) Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD—for he proclaims peace to his people.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
The LORD himself will give his benefits;
our land shall yield its increase.
Justice shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.

Reading 2 2 PT 3:8-14

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years
and a thousand years like one day.
The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,”
but he is patient with you,
not wishing that any should perish
but that all should come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

Since everything is to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be,
conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion,
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,
because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames
and the elements melted by fire.
But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you await these things,
be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

Alleluia LK 3:4, 6

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths:
all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MK 1:1-8

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.”

John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed:
“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.”