Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
Second Sunday of Advent, Extraordinary Form
December 4, 2016
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 the homily:
Jesus or Someone Else?
“Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” That’s the question St. John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus in today’s Gospel and that’s the question we need, too, need to confront with seriousness in faith. If Jesus is the long-desired fulfillment of all of the Messianic prophecies, then everything else should be relativized and we should cling to him, and his word, with all our mind, heart, soul and strength. If he is the one we’ve been waiting for, then John would ask, “What are we waiting for?” in order to put him absolutely front and center, first, supreme in our life, and follow him, live in his kingdom, rejoice in his presence, and share that great news with others.
The answer to the question John has his disciples and the Church pose, like Jesus’ question at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do you say that I am?,” is really the most consequential question of our life. It’s a question we cannot answer in a merely intellectual way. If Jesus really is the one, if he really is the Messiah and Son of God, then we shouldn’t be looking for anyone or anything else, we shouldn’t be hedging our bets on the way we live, but go all in.
While there may be some “searchers” here among us this morning — and if you are, please know how welcome you are with your questions about Jesus, the Church, Catholic worship and more and how honored we would be to help you find the answers for which you’re searching — I would venture to say that most of us are here because we believe that Jesus is the one. As an intellectual act of faith, we confess that he is exactly whom the Church teaches he is, the incarnate Son of the Eternal Father, the God man born of the Virgin Mary, the King of the Universe. But faith is not just an intellectual act, but an existential one. It’s an entrustment of one’s whole being to God and a staking of one’s entire life on what God has revealed. And while our mind says with the certainty of faith, “Jesus is the one and there is no other,” the question St. John the Baptist poses is deeper than that: he is asking whether our whole life, like his, attests to that fact.
Acting on our Choice
That’s why each year on the second and the third Sunday of Advent, the lectionaries of both the extraordinary and ordinary form of the Roman Rite always focus on the figure of the precursor Domini, the forerunner of the Lord, St. John the Baptist. Today Jesus identifies him 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 imprisoned by Herod to go to visit Jesus, who was performing all of the works Isaiah had preannounced the Messiah would accomplish, to ask whether he was their long-awaited one, whether their long Advent was over, or whether they should look for someone else. 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 forerunner 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, castigated him for supposedly violating the Sabbath, and continued to ask him for other signs by which they could get him arrested and executed, John took no offense, and even though Herod had incarcerated him for preaching the truth about marriage and Herod’s marital situation, John sent his clinging disciples to Jesus to find in him the one to whom John’s whole life — and even his imprisonment and death — would point.
Today John continues to point out Jesus to us and wants us, like Andrew and John, like his emissaries in today’s Gospel, to enter into deeper conversation with Jesus, to consider all of his works, to be blessed for our faith in him and not to be scandalized by the fact that he may exercise his salvific Mission and divine power in a way differently than we might expect — even allowing himself to be crucified and us to suffer with him.
Preparing the Way
John’s work, however, doesn’t cease with his pointing Jesus out. Jesus stresses today that John was the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you,” something John himself, when he first began his public work at the Jordan, likewise admitted, when he declared he was the actualization of Isaiah’s words about the “voice of One crying out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John also 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.
What is the conversion to which the Baptist is calling us?
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 on this Second Sunday of Advent 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 the Baptist 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 (avert) from sin, to turn toward Jesus (advert) and then literally to “turn with” (con-vertere) Jesus every day and throughout the day. Jesus indeed is the one. Blessed are those, like John and the saints, who take no offense at him.
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.’