16 December 2010

The Urgency of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent
            Have you ever noticed how the urgency, or even the lack thereof, can change the way we communicate?  Say you have tons of time, but you still want someone to get something done.  What do we usually say?  “If you wouldn’t mind, could you…” or “When you get a chance might you…”.  On the flip side, if we’re rushed, if we feel that something has to happen quickly, then we tend to forego the formalities, and just get to the point: “I need to you to do…” or even “Do…”. 
            In our first reading from Isaiah, we might think that he’s taking a more laid back approach.  After all, compared to the way John the Baptist was preaching in our Gospel, anything would seem laid back.  But listen again to the images Isaiah uses. 
            First we have a shoot sprouting from a stump.  That’s pretty drastic.  And this shoot is really a man, who will be filled with the Spirit of the Lord.  But not just the general Spirit of the Lord, but a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, fear of the Lord.  This is part of the common list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  This shoot is not going to judge by hearsay or appearance (sort of an allusion to the way the judges in the time of Isaiah were judging), but “shall judge the poor with justice.”  Then we get really drastic.
            This just judge “shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.”  That’s pretty intense!  And then, we get what we think of as a very bucolic scene: “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb; and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them” but which in reality means that a major change is going to take place.  No longer will predator/prey be the main relationship, as it is now, but all will be at peace.  But of course, you need someone to instill that peace: the just judge, the shoot from Jesse’s stump.  Even this is a pretty extreme scenario.
            This makes John the Baptist not seem so different from the line of the prophets.  His words, as harsh as they sound in today’s Gospel, are just as intense as Isaiah’s were.  But, for John, there is even more urgency, because he knows that he is on “a mission from God” to quote a famous movie, “‘A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”
A statue of St. John the Baptist from his
home town of Ein Keren in Israel
            John the Baptist knows that his mission is to bring the people to repentance, because it is by repentance that they will recognize the Messiah.  And when he doesn’t see that repentance, the urgency of the message leads him to say some pretty amazing things: “‘Your brood of vipers!” he says to the Pharisees and Sadducees.  And John continues: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.  Therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire…His winnowing fan is in his hand.  He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  In other words, repent, or it’s going to be really bad for you.
            Brothers and sisters, we should have the same urgency about us.  Jesus is coming back.  For all we know, He could return tomorrow.  And yet what is the tone in our hearts and in our voice when it comes to repentance to prepare for Jesus’ return?  Is it, “It would be nice if I were a better disciple” or “If I get around to it I’ll change my life to more conform with the Gospel”?  That’s probably true for each of us, some of us at times, others of us for much of our lives.  We need John the Baptist to communicate to us the urgency of turning back to Christ.  We need him yelling in the wilderness, “‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
            And this time, Jesus will not come as a tiny baby, seemingly powerless.  When He comes again He will come to judge the living and the dead, as we profess each solemnity in the creed, to separate the sheep from the goats.  And if we’re goats, there’s nothing but eternal torment in the fires of hell to look forward to.  He will come as a conquering King to bring a final end to Satan, and all his demons, and all those who by their actions tell God that they would rather “reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
            The time is near.  It is urgent that we convert.  So how do we repent?  How do we more configure our lives to Christ?  We begin and end with God’s grace, with our cooperation in the middle.  We first ask God for forgiveness for those times that we have sinned, especially through sacramental confession and absolution.  We take time to be honest with God and tell Him the areas of our life that still need conversion.  And God never rejects those who honestly come to Him asking for His help.  And then we use that grace that we receive from sacramental reconciliation to change real actions in our life, to truly stop sinful actions, and replace them with acts of charity, acts of benevolence, acts of faith and trust in God.  And then God crowns those gifts with more grace, so that we can continue in our response to the love which God first showered upon us.
            We should not put off our conversion.  We should not delay in conforming our lives more to Christ.  The time is now.  It is urgent.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”