Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Repentance at the Heart of Advent

Every Advent, through the drama of the liturgy, John the Baptist emerges again from the Judean desert and assumes center stage, shouting up and down the Jordan Valley, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! [Mathew 3:1-12]

For us today, John the Baptist is at best a somewhat strange, maybe even mysterious, and probably not very appealing figure. He appears, ever so briefly, at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, and then, before we have barely gotten to know him, gets himself arrested and killed. Having heard his rather shrill shouting every 2nd Sunday of Advent, we are ready, right away almost, to put him back in storage, while we focus instead on the holiday season’s more attractive aspects.

But, attractive or not, John’s message most certainly seems to have been compelling to his hearers. At that time, the gospel story tells us, Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him. And even as they acknowledged their sins, John challenged his hearers to produce good fruit as evidence of repentance. More than any other Advent image, I think John the Baptist represents what Thomas Merton once called “the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent,” in contrast to what he called “the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture.”

John’s challenge has always been at the heart of Advent’s message, and the fact that the Church faithfully invites John back every Advent to tell us that may help us appreciate what Pope Francis, for example, was getting at in his programmatic Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), when he said that “all of us are asked to obey [the Lord’s] call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel’ [EG, 20].

Those words were meant as a challenge to the entire Church to look outside ourselves, recalibrating our priorities and activities to make the Church’s mission – that is, the mission of all of us - possible and effective.

Like John the Baptist confronting his contemporaries, Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium did not shy away from the challenges of our own time. Speaking of where and to whom to go when the Church "goes forth,” Pope Francis recalled Jesus’ famous instruction in the Gospel about whom to welcome to a feast [Luke 14:14]. “There can be no room for doubt or for explanations which weaken so clear a message,” the Pope reminds us. For “the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel” [EG 48].

(We will hear Jesus cite the poor having the good news proclaimed to them as one of the signs that validate his mission in next Sunday’s Gospel.)

Just as John the Baptist confronted the brood of vipers, as he labeled the Judean leadership, Advent confronts our contemporary politics and economics of exclusion with the alternative of the Church's challenging universal mission of inclusion. Welcome one another, Saint Paul tells us, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God [Romans 15:7].

We will hear more about the Church’s essential mission of welcome later, at the end of Mass, when we will read a pastoral letter from our Bishop, in which he reminds how, throughout our country’s history, the Catholic Church has been here to welcome new people who come with the dream of freedom and progress. It is part of our identity as the Church to be a place of hospitality and welcome.

John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ by challenging people to recognize the reality of their lives and relearn what that life is supposed to be about.  In reminding us of the priority of society in human existence and the imperative of solidarity in human relationships, Advent challenges us all to reconsider our present-day priorities, whatever they may be, in order to become the Church that we are eternally called to be, a community called, as Saint Paul says, to glorify God for his mercy [Romans 15:8].

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TB, December 4, 2016.

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