Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
December 5, 2004
Is 11:1-10; Rom 15:4-9; Mt 3:1-12
1) On the second Sunday of Advent each year, the Church leads us on pilgrimage to the Jordan River, so that we might enroll in the school of St. 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. Advent literally means “coming toward,” and in it we ourselves are called to prepare for God’s coming toward us — in the past, 2000 years ago in Bethlehem; in the future, with power and great glory on the clouds of heaven; and in the present, in his Word, in the Eucharist, and in grace. The preparatory work announced by John is the way we’re called to get ourselves ready to receive the Lord who is coming. What is that work?
2) When we meet him at the Jordan, John blares, “I am the voice of One crying out in the desert.” He didn’t say, “I am one crying out in the desert,” but rather, “I am the VOICE of one crying out in the desert.” John is the voice, the loudspeaker, the spokesperson; who is the “one crying out?” It’s the WORD, Christ Jesus himself. John’s message is God’s message, which John was screaming at the top of his powerful lungs. The message was urgent and clear: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” 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 him could arrive without delay and without hassle. John the Baptist is telling us that to get ready for the Lord who is coming this Advent, we, too, need to prepare a way for him. 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, but in of our hearts. It will not be made in the wilderness, but in our life. 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.
3) To preach conversion is the mission of the Baptist, which is why we encounter him every Advent, because in Advent this message must be preached and conversion must be practiced. The reason is because Jesus has come into the world to SAVE US FROM OUR SINS and from 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 Him to save us from our sins. That’s why John the Baptist’s message is such a gift. His whole vocation, his whole mission, was to deliver that message. Before he was even conceived, the Archangel Gabriel said to his dad, Zechariah, “He will TURN THE HEARTS of many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will go before the Lord, to turn … the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk 1:16-17). Nine months later at his birth, Zechariah exclaimed, “You, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation BY THE FORGIVENESS OF THEIR SINS” (Lk 1:76-77). When the Baptist arrived at the Jordan, he fulfilled those prophecies, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins” (Mk 1:4). His first words at the Jordan were “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Those were the identical words that Jesus himself would use to inaugurate his public ministry a little later, after his forty day retreat in the desert, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 4:17). Thus, John was indeed the VOICE of JESUS crying out in the desert for “repentance” through the forgiveness of our sins. That VOICE and that WORD continue to echo LIVE today.
4) The Lord is coming for us in Advent, but for him to reach his destination, we have to convert. “To make straight the paths of the Lord” means to clear the path of sin, which is the major obstacle for the Lord to come into our lives. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, 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). We have 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 in a sinful relationship, the Lord calls us through John the Baptist to end it; if we’ve been involved in some dishonest practices at work or at home, 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. This Advent — which is a gift of the Lord to us, and (who knows?) may be our last — will SUCCEED OR FAIL on the basis of how well we convert and clear our lives of sin so that the Lord may come to us.
5) There’s a reason why John the Baptist preached at the Jordan River. It was more than just a source of water where he could baptize. The Jordan river was the place that represented the border between the desert — where the Jews wandered aimlessly for 38 years after centuries of slavery in Egypt— and the Promised Land. By preaching his message there, John was inviting the Jews of his day, to come out of the bondage of slavery, to leave their faults and wandering, sinful lives behind, and enter into the promised land full of God’s blessings. The Baptist preaches the same thing to us today. He points us to a new exodus — from death to life, from sin to sanctity — and states very clearly that the path from the desert into the new promised land IS CONVERSION.
6) In order to make that conversion possible, Jesus, on Easter Sunday evening, instituted the Sacrament of Confession and sent priests out to the end of the world not just to “preach repentance and forgiveness of sins … to all nations beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk 24:47), but with the POWER to EFFECT that forgiveness of sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit: Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven; those whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:18-22). The saints have called this sacrament a “second baptism,” in which we’re brought back to the Jordan and cleansed interiorly like on the day of our Christening. We have printed in the bulletin the hours when Fr. Frechette, Fr. Henchey (our Advent mission preacher) and I will be hearing confessions in addition to the normal times on Saturday. The same Christ who through his priests gives you his body and blood through the same priests gives you his forgiveness. As Catholics, we’re called to love all seven sacraments and take advantage of them, trusting that if the Lord instituted them, we need them. In the Sacrament of Confession, the Lord wants to heal you and help you repair the damage caused by sin to the path between you and Him. Please take him up on his offer.
7) In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist wants every one of us to know that we NEED THAT FORGIVENESS. We ALL need to repent. The Scribes and the Pharisees thought they were exceptions to John’s call for conversion. They were going out to the Jordan to hear John, who had become quite a phenomenon, but they were not really open to personal repentance. They thought they didn’t need it. The Baptist exposed their hypocrisy in unmitigated candor: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
8) Sometimes we, like the Scribes and the Pharisees, can have a similar blindness to our own sins and fail to see the urgent need for repentance. We can say, “We are children of God.… God loves us unconditionally, just as we are. … We don’t really need to change.” The Baptist reminds us that God can raise up children of God from rocks and that we shouldn’t let our Christian dignity become an excuse for us not to realize that we have to strive, always, to live up to that dignity, to become truly the likeness of God, who is “holy, holy, holy.” He tells us that we need to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” We can’t stay, therefore, at the level of a “general repentance,” recognizing that we “like everybody else” have our faults and failings, without doing anything about it. If we truly are repentant, that must show itself in actions — in “fruit” — and the fruit of repentance that God wants most is for us humbly to examine our consciences, come with sorrow to confess our sins to Him through the priest, make a sincere attempt to amend our lives, and receive his forgiveness in the way He himself established.
9) John the Baptist’s mission was not merely to announce the need for repentance, but to point out how sins would be forgiven. He told the people, “Behold one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” A short time later, he saw that “more powerful one” coming to him at the Jordan and 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. That’s where the Lamb of God takes away our sins, the sins for which he paid such a precious price on Calvary.
10) The Lamb of God is coming toward us to take away our sins. That is why this message of the Baptist is such “Good News” and not bad news. We’re sinners, yes, but God comes to save us from those sins, if we repent and allow him to do so. This is the best way for us to prepare for his coming in the past in Bethlehem. This is the best way for us to prepare for his coming at the end of time or at the end of “our time,” whichever comes first. This is the best way for us to prepare to receive him in the Eucharist. As we will sing in just a few minutes,
On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh.
Awake and hearken for he brings
Glad tidings from the King of Kings.
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.