Thursday, December 11, 2008

Homily Second Sunday of Advent Year B

Oops, I've been forgetting to link to the readings for these homilies. Below is my homily for last Sunday's readings, the Second Sunday of Advent.

Today, the Second Sunday of Advent, the Church puts before us the figure of St. John the Baptist. Now, when we think of him, I bet the first things that come to mind are that camel hair shirt and his eating of locusts! Those always grab my attention when I’m reading the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. It’s easy for me, and maybe you too as the long year winds down, to lose focus on his example beyond those things. Thankfully, we have this season of Advent to take seriously again John’s message. What does it mean to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths”? What’s the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’? Why does John say that he is “not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of [Jesus’] sandals”? Even though our Gospel reading for today is made up of only eight verses, we can see much in John the Baptist’s mission and his words that can be useful for us as we prepare for the coming of the Lord.

First, did you notice the lead up to John the Baptist in the readings beforehand? I always enjoy discovering how all of the readings tie together each Sunday. I think the Church wants us to listen closely to the readings in this way, to listen for the connections, and the brilliant way in which all of salvation history points to Christ and the glory of the Father. This buildup, from our first reading in Isaiah, to the Responsorial Psalm, to the second letter of St. Peter, culminates in the Gospel as St. John the Baptist bursts onto the scene. We get the feeling, when we listen closely to the trajectory of the readings that John’s meaning in life, his vocation, the reason he was put on this earth was prepared for him since the times of the great Old Testament Prophets and before. John’s life’s mission is to prepare the way of the Lord, Jesus Christ, to till the soil of men’s hearts to be able to receive the seeds that Jesus will plant.

Isaiah exclaims, “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!... Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed… Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God!” It’s as if the prophet Isaiah has given to John the Baptist, centuries before his arrival, the very words that he should say. Then our Responsorial Psalm helps us understand the way that John prepared for Jesus. He didn’t just “spread the word” as if our Lord’s public appearance was some holy gossip to spread among the land. No, John prepared mankind for Jesus in a particular way, with Justice. And so we heard at the end of the psalm “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps.” John fervently preached to all of the people to acknowledge their sins before God and to symbolize their repentance by being washed in the Jordan River. By repentance we return to God what belongs to Him, our Love. That’s what Justice is all about. Repentance also helps us to behave correctly. Our second reading asks us, “what sort of persons ought you to be”? It then answers: “conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God”. As the last prophet of the Old Testament and the first herald of the New, John the Baptist perfectly takes the torch of all that came before him.

When we look at John the Baptist’s noble vocation, let’s not think that he is merely an isolated figure stuck in history two thousand years ago. We too are John the Baptist. We see how John inherited and echoed all of the prophecy that came before him. He even exceeded the prophets by beholding, believing, and even baptizing the long-awaited Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. But, God has prepared from all eternity your vocation as well! Just stop and think about that for a second. From all eternity, before time began, God planned your personal, individual, vocation; your mission; your reason for being. Do you know what your vocation is? What has God has prepared for you before the world began? Every single one of us has a vocation. Perhaps you are living it now, in a married life, where husband and wife prepare each other and their family to receive the Lord when he comes. Perhaps your vocation is to the priesthood where you will prepare souls for the Lord through the grace of the sacraments. Perhaps your vocation is to religious life as a nun, a sister, or a brother where you will prepare the Church through prayer and work. Or perhaps it is as a lay single person as you go out into all the spheres of the world – business, the markets, the streets, the schools – making “straight in the wasteland a highway for our God”.

Whatever your vocation, know that a true vocation from God is always one that prepares for his Son and relies not on our abilities but on his grace. Our entire lives as Catholics are ones of waiting for, looking toward, and preparing for the coming of the Lord. Do not despair if God’s will is coming to you with difficulty. Have faith that every one of us has a vocation that, though it may be in common with others, is tailor-made for our own, unique, individual salvation. When you discover your vocation, let John the Baptist teach you not only what to do and what to say, but how to say it. I think the “How?” of our vocation can be answered best by John’s humility. Let’s look again at the wonderful picture of him that our readings today have painted.

See how first we are told to “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.Speak tenderly.” Then “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together”. Notice the glory is not in the messenger, but in the tender message, or rather the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Then we heard the Psalm begin “I will hear what God proclaims; the LORD—for he proclaims peace to his people.” He hears not the words of his own agenda, but focuses on what God proclaims. And since he “await[s] these things, [he is] eager to be found without spot or blemish before [the Lord], at peace.”

Then we see John in the Gospel, “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.’” John knew that his ministry was never about him, never about how good of a preacher he was to have been able to draw “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” to him in the waters of the Jordan River. It was only all about Jesus, who John describes as mighty, like a king. The lowest most insignificant servant of a king was the one who had the often dirty and unhealthy job of loosening the king’s sandals and caring for his feet.[1] But John, in his great humility would not even dare “stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Even Christ’s mission is mightier for John’s baptism “with water” merely symbolized repentance from sin, but Jesus’ Baptism “with the Holy Spirit” actually effects what it symbolizes. It really and truly washes sins from the soul.

Despite these vivid examples, the most striking one of John’s humility is one that I know I’ve read over hundreds of times before without catching it. St. Mark, in quoting Isaiah at the beginning of his Gospel, before he introduces John the Baptist, describes him as “A voice of one crying out in the desert”. John…is…just…a…voice.[2] He was so humble before the message of God that he became the message, the voice, of God the Father. Let us go forth and speak this message of repentance to our coworkers, friends, and relatives. From the heart of our God-given vocation, with great humility, let us not only speak but become the message, the Word of God, Jesus Christ. And let us always point to Him, “for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
[1] In Conversation with God, Volume One, p. 59, by Fr. Francis Fernandez
[2] In Conversation with God, Volume One, p. 59, by Fr. Francis Fernandez

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