Homily, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, GA
One of the things I love most about the holiday season is the music. I like to listen to public radio, and around this time of year, they start playing all the classics. One of my favorites, which always receives its share of air time, is Handel’s “Messiah”, of which I’m sure you’re all familiar with the famous “Hallelujah” chorus. But I have two other favorites that come from Handel’s Messiah, one is near the beginning, “Comfort ye my people”, and the other is “And he shall purify the sons of Levi.” Those songs are very much about the priesthood, and when listening to them, I can make them a prayer.
In today's Gospel, Matthew tells us, "John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”" And he tells us that, people from "Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins."
Why did so many people flock to see John the Baptist? As Isaiah said, and as it is sung in Handel’s Messiah, “comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, cry out unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.” John was so attractive because his words were words of mercy, words of comfort. If you repent and be baptized, your sins will be forgiven. For these people knew one simple fact: they were sinners in need of forgiveness. And the words of John the Baptist filled them will great joy and hope: the Lord was coming, the promised Messiah who would obtain forgiveness for their sins.
But, you know, it was more than that. It was more than just hearing the comforting words that their sins were going to be forgiven. There was something hidden in John’s words which also attracted them. He would say, “I have baptized you in water; He [who is to come] will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.” Forgiveness was part of the promise, but that was not the whole promise, for the Scriptures are full of other promises through the prophets, Ezekiel said (11:19), “I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the stony heart from their bodies, and replace it with a natural heart…” and Malachi said (3:3), as it is sung in Handel’s Messiah, “And he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto to the Lord an offering in righteousness.”
Now, to explain this, I’ll need to go into history a little bit. I’m sure you all know at least a little bit about the Protestant Reformation. Well, one of the key disputes between Catholics and Protestants at that time was this: what happens to a person when God forgives them, or what we call the question of justification. When Martin Luther was trying to explain this from the Protestant perspective, he taught that when the Lord justifies a sinner, the soul becomes like “dung covered with snow.” In other words, the person remains in their sin, still full of filth and corruption, like dung, but the Lord covers them with snow, so that when he looks down, all he sees is the white snow and not the dung, which is still there. You’re still a sinner, but the Lord overlooks that because Christ's righteousness is imputed to us. And certainly this flows from one of the promises of Isaiah (1:18), “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.” And the Psalm says (103:12), “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our sins.”
But it doesn’t end there, for the truth that the Catholic Church upheld against Martin Luther and his followers was that something else also happens when your sins are forgiven: you are purified, renewed, given a new heart. The dung, our filth and corruption, is not just covered up, but our souls are recreated, and a seed of glory is planted, a seed that if allowed to germinate will bear fruit for eternal life. In other words, when the Lord forgives your sins, he does so with "the Holy Spirit and fire." He not only forgets and overlooks your sins, he also creates in you a new heart, as St. Paul says, “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”
And this happens first in Baptism, for Jesus says that we must be born from above by water and the Spirit (John 3:5). So Baptism accomplishes in us this new birth, this justification, where our sins are forgiven and we are recreated. When I baptize a child, part of the ritual says, “You have become a new creation… You have put on Christ. In Him you have been baptized.” And this new life in Christ should always be increasing, as St. Paul says in today’s reading, “It is my wish that you may be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in you.”
But, as we are all too aware, after Baptism, we still have our free will, and the temptations to sin from the world, the flesh and the devil often seem too strong. In short, despite the great gift of rebirth we have been given, we often turn from it. But we should not lose hope, because our Lord has given us another great sacrament, Confession, which the Fathers of the Church have called the “Baptism of tears.” And in this Sacrament, the same thing happens: we are forgiven, and renewed.
So, in this season of Advent, we can be like the people who responded to John the Baptist’s preaching, confessing our sins and reforming our lives through penance, then we will be truly ready when He comes again – and by the witness of our lives, we can be voices crying out in the wilderness of this modern world, announcing that “the reign of God is at hand.”
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