Becoming Effective Precursors, Third Sunday of Advent (B), December 11, 2011 Audio Homily

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Third Sunday in Advent, Year B
December 11, 2011
Is 61:1-2,10-11; 1Thess5:16-24; Jn 1:6-8;19-28

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click at the bottom of the page. The following text guided this homily:

BECOMING EFFECTIVE PRECURSORS

  • Today, for the second Sunday in a row, we encounter St. John the Baptist who proclaims anew this Sunday, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” We see today that the the priests and Levites from Jerusalem who came to him at the Jordan were trying to figure him out. “Who are you?,” they asked. He wasn’t the Messiah. He wasn’t Elijah come to life again. He wasn’t the Prophet Moses. So they asked him again, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” That’s when he announced he was the forerunner of another, the voice of the one calling all of us to conversion, of the one who was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and whose sandal strap he was not worthy to untie. Church tradition has always referred to John the Baptist as the precursor of the Lord, because as his father Zechariah said at his birth, he would “go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins.”
  • In the ancient world, before Twitter and Facebook, before text messages and the internet, before televisions and radios, before newspapers and posters, how would people be informed that a dignitary was coming to their town? Heralds would be sent out to alert everyone, to call them to attention, so that the one who is coming might be expected, desired and welcomed, so that they could repair the roads and the bridges or make new ones, so that they could clean everything up, and so that the people may notice and greet the one who was coming when he arrived. This is the service that John the Baptist fulfilled for the Lord’s coming in Bethlehem and the Church has him do for us still. It’s the service that likewise the prophet Isaiah fulfills every Advent. It’s the service that, in a sense, the Star of Bethlehem did for the Magi. We have all benefit from these forerunners who announce that Jesus is coming and prepare people to get ready to receive him as he ought to be received when at last he comes.
  • As Catholics, however, we’re called not merely to receive and be grateful for the work of these forerunners, but we’re also called to become precursors in our own right. Jesus constantly has need of forerunners, heralds to announce his presence and coming. And all of us, by our baptism and strengthened by our confirmation, have been consecrated to carry out this role. Jesus went to John and sanctified him from the beginning in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, because he would later be his indomitable herald. The same Lord has chosen us, has redeemed and sanctified us, at the beginning of our lives in the womb of our mother, the Church, (which is the baptismal font), so that we might be his precursors or witnesses in the world, so that we might smooth out his paths and prepare others for his coming. We are called, as John the Baptist said in today’s Gospel, to be a voice for Christ, to announce to others, ““In your midst there is one whom you do not know,” one for whom you are searching, who can make you happy, one who will never deceive you, the only one who has the words of eternal life.”
  • The renewal that is meant to take place in us each Advent begins with our receiving John the Baptist’s call and making straight the paths for Christ to come to us, but it doesn’t stop there. The fruit is for us to echo John the Baptist’s call and help others likewise to prepare the way for the Lord. This is the greatest gift we could give to anyone at Christmas.
  • We’re now living in a world in which so many of the baptized are living day-to-day and even on Sundays as if God doesn’t exist, as if Jesus didn’t come, as if Jesus, God-with-us, is really not here to save us, sanctify us, and shepherd us to be with him forever. They may say they believe in him. They may profess themselves to be Christian. But at a concrete level the practice of the faith has grown cold. They may show up to Mass on Christmas, Ash Wednesday and Easter, but more as a visitor than as a friend for whom Jesus died. They’ve ceased to live a sacramental life. In many cases, they’ve ceased to pray, both individually or in their families. They’ve ceased, in short, to live as a Christian, even if they maintain a nostalgia for Christian values and some past experiences. If they really knew Jesus, if they really had been evangelized rather than simply catechized, if their faith had truly passed from their head to their heart to all their limbs, they would never have wandered away from the living Lord who meets us in the Sacraments, who speaks to us with his Word and who founded the Church and continues to guide it. Many of them have just drifted away from Christ because, for one reason or another, they didn’t really experience the fullness of his burning love. Or they turned away because they were scandalized by the behavior of someone was supposedly Jesus’ follower or ambassador. This is a people that very much needs to precursors to introduce them anew to Jesus Christ!
  • And we’re called to be those forerunners. Pope Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been calling everyone of us in the Church to a new evangelization, which first begins with our entering into a new and full loving relationship with Christ and then together with Christ and the Holy Spirit inviting the whole world to enter into loving friendship with Christ and with us in Christ. This relationship with Christ is what everyone in the world needs, and yet so many people are so distracted about what’s most important that they’re no more alert than the ancient inn-keepers to Christ’s coming.
    What are the steps in this new evangelization, to our being precursors, to our becoming the voice of Christ, to our helping others to make straight the paths for Christ to save them? The Popes have mentioned several. It’s important for us to meditate on them as we ask the Lord for his help that we may be effective and faithful precursors like John the Baptist before us.
  • The first step is prayer:
    This is what we see Jesus doing before he called his disciples. He would spend all night in prayer before he would call.
    This is particularly important for us because we cannot of our own power make disciples because we cannot pass on the gift of faith, which is always a divine gift.
    The future Pope Benedict, about this role of prayer in spreading the faith, said in 2000: All methods are empty without the foundation of prayer. The word of the announcement must always be drenched in an intense life of prayer.”
  • The second step is witness
    People today trust witnesses more than teachers. Because we’re often cynical from seeing so many hypocrites in politics, at work, among televangelists, perhaps even among our families and many of those who claim to be religious, we pay more attention to those who walk the walk rather than those who just talk the talk.
    That’s why it’s so important for us not just to call ourselves Christians but to live and behave Christians. To put God first in life. To pray as a good Catholic ought. To love Jesus in the Mass. To be humble enough to go to confession to receive his forgiveness when we sin. To be charitable and sacrifice ourselves for others. To live by the commandments — and not to lie, steal, or condemn, or covet, or cheat, or curse, or cohabit, or contracept, or fornicate, or do drugs, or gossip, or abort as so many others in our age do without compunction. To live by the Beatitudes. To seek peace, justice, and human rights. To forgive. In short, to be men and women who remind others of Jesus Christ.
  • Pope VI said back in 1975, “Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good, … their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization. The above questions will ask, whether they are people to whom Christ has never been proclaimed, or baptized people who do not practice, or people who live as nominal Christians but according to principles that are in no way Christian, or people who are seeking, and not without suffering, something or someone whom they sense but cannot name. Other questions will arise, deeper and more demanding ones, questions evoked by this witness which involves presence, sharing, solidarity, and which is an essential element, and generally the first one, in evangelization. All Christians are called to this witness, and in this way they can be real evangelizers.”
  • For this witness to be effective, it must be marked by profound joy. Today in the Church we celebrate Gaudete Sunday with rose vestments to focus on the joy we have at the blessed coming of our Savior Jesus, the joy we have because the Lord is with us, they joy we have because of our faith, our vocation, our being truly sons and daughters of God, our being brothers and sisters of the largest family in the world full of so many saints, joy for so many gifts God has given us. In the Responsorial today, we make our own Mary’s Magnificat, in which she said that her spirit rejoices in God her Savior because he has looked upon his lowly servant and done great things for her and for us, that he has mercy in every generation, fills the hungry with good things, and remembers and fulfills his promises. In today’s second reading, St. Paul says, “Rejoice always,” and links that seemingly impossible command to two practices that will help us to rejoice: “pray without ceasing” and “in all circumstances give thanks.” It’s through prayer and through a spirit of gratitude that we find joy in our relationship with the Lord and gratefully count all the blessings, including crosses, that he gives us.
    But we need to ask ourselves always if we give off a witness of joy. It should be a point on which we examine our conscience each night.
  • In preparation for a Synod of Bishops from around the world to take place in the Vatican next October on precisely this task of the Church’s being precursors and evangelizing the world anew, the preparatory document spoke about the obstacle that comes when Christians live the faith without joy. It was very candid.
    “In fact, the obstacles to the new evangelization are precisely a lack of joy and hope among people, caused and spread by various situations in our world today. Oftentimes, this lack of joy and hope is so strong that it affects the very tenor of our Christian communities. This is the reason for renewing the appeal for a new evangelization, not simply as an added responsibility but as a way to restore joy and life to situations imprisoned in fear. We therefore approach the new evangelization with a sense of enthusiasm. … And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the Kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.”
    This is type of witness that was given by Isaiah, John, the apostles, St. Anthony and so many others. This is the type of witness we, too, are called to give.
  • The third part of the new evangelization is actually to speak about Jesus. Prayer and witness are necessary preconditions, but they’re not enough. We also have to have the courage to speak to others about Jesus and about his burning love and the truth that sets us free. To be effective, we can’t speak merely about Jesus’ teachings, but we must announce him, that he’s alive, that he’s present in prayer and the sacraments, and try to introduce them to him. We need to speak of Jesus as our intimate friend, in the same way that we would speak to a family member with joy about someone with whom we’re in love, a reverence, with a contagious enthusiasm, with joy. This isn’t about “making converts,” but in fact it’s bringing people happiness, the happiness that God alone can give.
  • Fourth, to be an effective precursor, we can’t merely speak to the masses. We need to be willing to become a true friend of the ones to whom we’re introducing Jesus, the ones for whom Jesus died but of whose love they may be unaware. This type of one-on-one work is indispensable. It’s a form that Jesus often used, as we see with Nicodemus, with Zacchaeus, with the Samaritan woman, with Simon the Pharisee.
  • Fifth and lastly, we should do all of this with an authentic Christian spirituality, which means confidence and openness to the Holy Spirit’s working within us, real apostolic love for those with whom we’re speaking, a real love for the Church that Jesus founded, and a real pursuit of holiness in our own life — which is nothing other than loving union with God.
    The whole life of the precursor is oriented toward the Christ who is coming. We pray to Christ for those who are not yet united with him. We give witness to him and his love living in us. We speak of him with fiery affection to others. We model our friendship with others on the faithful friendship he himself established with us. We seek to live according to the Holy Spirit he has sent into our hearts in order to make us holy and capable of being his instruments to sanctify others and the world.
  • This total orientation toward Christ was shown in the life of John the Baptist. The most beautiful moment in his life was when he finally encountered Jesus, coming toward him at the Jordan. He shouted out, “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him who takes away the sins of the world! Behold the One of whom I was speaking!” For us, too, this encounter is about to happen. At Communion, we will welcome him with the same words of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God.” May the Lord fill our hearts with joy and courage so that we might be able to be his precursors of Christ’s saving, Eucharistic, loving presence in the world, in the lives of our friends and family, and make straight the ways of New Bedford and surrounding cities to receive and embrace with love the Lamb who is coming, has come, and will come again!

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 IS 61:1-2A, 10-11

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.

Responsorial Psalm LK 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54

R/ (Is 61:10b) My soul rejoices in my God.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
R/ My soul rejoices in my God.
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
R/ My soul rejoices in my God.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
R/ My soul rejoices in my God.

Reading 2 1 THES 5:16-24

Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good.
Refrain from every kind of evil.

May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.

Alleluia IS 61:1 (CITED IN LK 4:18)

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel JN 1:6-8, 19-28

A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.

And this is the testimony of John.
When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests
and Levites to him
to ask him, “Who are you?”
He admitted and did not deny it,
but admitted, “I am not the Christ.”
So they asked him,
“What are you then? Are you Elijah?”
And he said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
So they said to him,
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?
What do you have to say for yourself?”
He said:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘make straight the way of the Lord,’

as Isaiah the prophet said.”
Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,
“Why then do you baptize
if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”
John answered them,
“I baptize with water;
but there is one among you whom you do not recognize,
the one who is coming after me,
whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan,
where John was baptizing.