Is 11:1-10; Rom 15:4-9; Mt 3:1-12
Introduction: On the one hand, salvation is God's doing, and we cannot earn His blessings. We are saved by His grace. On the other hand, we must cooperate with God’s grace because God cannot force his bounty upon us. That is why John the Baptist in today’s Gospel summons us to play our essential part by leading lives of repentance, conversion, and renewal, thus preparing the way for the Lord's second coming. We start this process by spiritually preparing for the annual celebration of Christmas, the Lord’s first coming, as we reform and renew our lives by repentance and works of charity.
Homily starter anecdote: Accept divine forgiveness by true repentance: An attempt was made in 1985 by some fans of O Henry, the short-story writer, to get a pardon for their hero who had been convicted a century before of embezzling $784.08 from the bank where he was employed. But a pardon cannot be given to a dead man. A pardon can only be given to someone who can accept it. Back in 1830, George Wilson was convicted of robbing the U.S. Mail and was sentenced to be hanged. President Andrew Jackson issued a pardon for Wilson, but he refused to accept it. The matter went to Chief Justice Marshall who concluded that Wilson would have to be executed. "A pardon is a slip of paper," wrote Marshall, "the value of which is determined by the acceptance of the person to be pardoned. If it is refused, it is no pardon. Hence, George Wilson must be hanged." For some, the pardon comes too late. For others, the pardon is not accepted. Today’s readings remind us that the Advent is the acceptable time for repentance and the acceptance of God’s pardon and renewal of life. (https://www.frtonyshomilies.com).
Scripture readings summarized: Many of the kings who succeeded David proved to be increasingly unfaithful, bringing eventual defeat and destruction upon the nation. Because of the bad example of their leaders, the Chosen People were wavering in their loyalty to Yahweh. The Lord God, through His prophet, Isaiah, in the first reading, tries to dispel their fears and stir up hope among His people by His promise of a new Davidic King (a son of Jesse), who will establish peace and a glorious Kingdom of justice on earth. His kingdom will be a return to the time of peace before sin entered the world. In today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 72), the Psalmist pictures this King, the Messiah, as one who will show compassion to the poor, the lowly, and the afflicted. In the second reading, Paul is praying for the Jewish Christians of Rome and instructing them to draw endurance and encouragement from the Old Testament books. They are to live in harmony with Gentile Christians, accepting them as equals -- brothers and sisters -- while they wait for the second coming of Jesus. In today’s Gospel, John the Baptizer urges the Pharisees and Sadducees to give evidence that they mean to reform their lives so as to recognize and accept the promised Messiah. He challenges them to repentance, conversion and renewal. He tells the common people, who are filled with expectation that the Messiah will come soon, to act with justice and charity, letting their lives reflect the transformation that will occur when the Messiah enters their lives. In the same way, as we prepare to welcome Christ at Christmas, John advises us to "prepare the way of the Lord."
First reading: Is 11:1-10 explained: The First Reading, taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, is a Messianic prophesy. Explaining how God will respond to the sincere conversion of His people, Isaiah’s prophecy reports three oracles concerning a future king. The first two oracles (Isaiah 7:10-17, 9:1-6), were probably delivered to King Ahaz. This prophecy may have had an initial fulfillment in the days after it was first given, in Isaiah’s time. If so then, like many prophecies, it has another, greater fulfillment, which is in the Messiah. Today’s reading gives the third oracle as a prediction of the first coming of Jesus, the Messiah. Isaiah prophesies that the Spirit of God with His sevenfold gifts -- wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord -- will appear in the promised Messiah. God Who called Abraham will fulfill His word by sending to them a king who will rule with wisdom and justice and will have the true spirit of the Lord. The reading also portrays this Messianic Kingdom as a return to the perfect harmony of Paradise. The Spirit will enable men to create a world in which “the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and a leopard shall lie down with the young goat.” These prophecies are fulfilled, in an anticipatory way, with the first advent of the Messiah and the spread of the Christian Faith, and they will be definitively fulfilled with the Second Advent and the appearance of the eternal order. The message for us is that, if we allow the Spirit of God to work in our lives, we will be able to live in peace and harmony even with those who threaten and disturb our lives. There can be no true love of neighbor or true respect for his rights where there is no love for God. Hence, we must strive to give God his rightful place in our daily lives and to follow the path that leads to justice and peace on earth.
Second reading: Rom 15:4-9 explained: In the Second Reading, St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, calls for reconciliation among the different factions in that community. Paul reminds his Roman readers that those who wait together for the many comings of our God should ignore their differences and sustain one another in mutual support and acceptance. Perhaps this reading is in the Lectionary today because it recommends patience, and this is the season of patient waiting for the Lord to come. It also contains a very seasonal statement about why the Lord came: to fulfill God's promise to the Jews and to extend mercy to the Gentiles. Paul reminds the newly converted Roman Christians, many of whom are Jews, that the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament are still a source of instruction, encouragement, and hope. The sacred Scriptures are useless unless they are employed to control the Christian's relations with others (Rom 15:4-9). Hence, Paul advises the Judeo-Christians and Gentile Christians of Rome to “live in harmony with one another according to the Spirit of Christ Jesus,” by being less judgmental and more understanding and benevolent. Paul also reminds the Romans that Jesus came to fulfill God's promise to the Jews and to extend mercy to the Gentiles. Hence, he encourages the Roman Christians to “accept one another” as Jesus Christ has accepted them. This reading reminds us to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord during this Advent season and shows us how to live as we do so.
Gospel exegesis: A prophet on fire with a fiery message: While only two Gospels mention the nativity, all four Gospels introduce Jesus with an account of John the Baptist's ministry (Mark 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-22; John 1:6-9). Matthew puts slightly greater emphasis on John's words than on his action of baptizing. He records a direct quote from John’s preaching: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near." There had been no prophet in Israel for four hundred years. But the people had no hesitation in accepting John as a prophet because he was like a burning torch summoning men to righteousness, a signpost to point men to God, and he had the authority of a man of God. He wore garments of coarse camel hair and a leather belt like the prophets that we read about in Zechariah 13:4 and 2 Kings 1:8. He ate what was available in the rocky desert -- wild honey and roasted grasshoppers – which was permissible according to Leviticus 11. The Jews expected Elijah to return prior to the coming of the Messiah (Mal 4:5). John's clothing of camel's hair and leather belt (2 Kings 1:8)) identified him as the fulfillment of that prophecy, and Jesus Himself affirmed John’s role when he said, "I tell you that Elijah has already come (Mt. 17:12)."
Call to repentance: John's message was not soothing. It cut into the very hearts of men. John denounced evil wherever he found it. He accused Herod of living a loose moral life (14:4), addressed the Scribes and the Pharisees as "brood of vipers" and summoned people to righteousness. His message was "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near" (v. 2), words which Jesus later used to begin his own preaching (4:17), and similar to those the disciples would proclaim (10:7). John justified his call to repentance by announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven was near and that the way to prepare for that day was to repent. Literally, the Greek word for repentance (teshuvá in Hebrew and metánoia) in Greek), means, "to change one's mind and heart," a change of direction or a U-turn. Repentance involves turning around – facing in a new direction -- with a change of heart and a new commitment. Repentance is a daily experience that renews our Baptism. “The repentant person comes before God saying, 'I can't do it myself, God. Kill me and give me new life. You buried me in Baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to a new life.'" Repentance for us is not a one-time action but must take place daily, because preparing for the Lord is a perpetual task.
John’s baptism as the expression of repentance: John’s baptism by water was an external expression of repentance. What he insisted on was the internal expression, a repentance that bore real fruit: a turning from worldly values combined with generosity and love. As a sign of true repentance, John urged the tax collectors to "stop collecting more than what is prescribed," and told the soldiers to “stop extortion and false accusation and remain satisfied with your wages.” In short, John’s message was a call for radical conversion, a demand for self-denial, sacrifice and loving service to others. We may have to put an ax to the roots of the resentments and biases in our hearts. We may have to winnow out our greed and overindulgence, and we may have to burn the chaff of our impatience. Even though John’s preaching was characterized by scathing criticism, his call for reform was described in Luke’s Gospel as "the Good News" because the arrival of the Messiah would initiate a new reign of forgiveness, healing and salvation.
John’s conditions for belonging to the Kingdom of Heaven: The coming Kingdom was John’s main theme. While the Gentile convert, Mark, uses the words “Kingdom of God," Matthew follows the Jewish tradition of avoiding the use of God’s name by using the expression "Kingdom of Heaven.” The Kingdom of God is a God-centered, God-controlled life. John wanted people to experience such a life. Everyone who wants to experience this “reign of God" needs to make a radical change in his or her life. That is the call for repentance. We cannot come under the sovereign rule of God without a change of attitude, a change of heart and a change of lifestyle. John not only denounced men for what they had done, he summoned them to what they ought to do. That is why Matthew emphasized the new life of proper fruit-bearing more than the forgiveness of sins. Bearing good fruit is not just doing good things but also doing them for the right reason.
Life messages: 1) We need to prepare for Christ’s coming by allowing him to be reborn daily in our lives: Advent is the time for us to make this preparation by repenting of our sins, and renewing our lives through prayer, penance, and sharing our blessings with others. Let us remember the oft-repeated words of Alexander Pope: "What does it profit me if Jesus is reborn in thousands of cribs all over the world and not reborn in my heart?" He means that Jesus must be reborn in our heart, during this season of Advent, and every day of our lives, bringing us love, kindness, mercy, forgiveness and the spirit of humble service.
2) We need to accept John’s call for a change of life. John the Baptist, the stern and uncompromising preacher, challenges our superficial attempts at change, demanding that we take a deeper look. Obeying the commandments is a good start, but we must also examine our relationships with others. We must mend ruptures and soothe frictions, face family responsibilities, work honestly, and treat employees justly. Start where you are, John says. Our domestic and social lives must be put in order. John's voice is sober and runs counter to the intoxicating voices around us today. He calls for rectitude and social consciousness. We must abandon our selfish thirst for consumption and, instead, be filled with the expectation of Jesus' coming. Therefore, following John's advice, let us celebrate the memory of this first advent, prepare for Jesus’ new advent in our lives, and wait for his second advent at the end of the world.
3) We need to wait prayerfully for the second advent of Jesus. John’s answer as to how the Jews should wait for the Messiah was that they should wait for the Lord with repentant hearts and reformed lives. We can start by praying from the heart. Let us remember that the Holy Mass is the most powerful of prayers because it transforms us into Eucharistic people, providing the living presence of Jesus in our hearts and his divine life in our souls. Conversion is through Jesus whom we encounter, mainly, through the Holy Scripture and the Sacraments. The Word and the Sacraments are the principal means God uses to give life to men's souls. Daily reconciliation with God, as we ask and receive His pardon for our daily sins and make our monthly sacramental confession, make us strong and enable us to receive more grace in the Eucharist. Let us read the Bible, pray the Rosary daily and fast once a week all year-round, rather than just during Advent and Lent. After all, we sin all year-round, so let us fast also all year-round by controlling our senses. We could take some time before Mass to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and we should practice forgiving those who offend us. Finally, let us share our love with others as selfless and humble service. "Do small things but with great love,” advise St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa). (Fr. Antony Kadavil)