Sunday, December 05, 2004

John the Baptist: Back Again This Advent With His Message of Repentance

(Second Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 5, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 3: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Advent 2004]

He’s back!

On the Second Sunday of Advent each year, he’s back.

Now in case you’re wondering, I’m not talking about “the Terminator.” I’m talking about John the Baptizer. In the 3-year liturgical cycle of readings, John is always the central character in the Gospel text that’s read on the Second Sunday of Advent.

Which is a bit surprising, because during this season of the year we’re preparing to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. Recall that John and Jesus were almost the same age; according to the Bible, John was born roughly six months before our Lord (that’s why the Church celebrates the feast of the Birth of John the Baptist on June 24).

So obviously John did not come to prepare people for Jesus’ physical birth. He would have had a difficult time doing that from the cradle. But John did come on the scene 30 years later to prepare people for their own spiritual rebirth—a rebirth that would soon be available to them through Jesus.

Because of John’s work—because of his preaching and teaching—many people were prepared to “receive” Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. And that’s why it’s so appropriate that he makes an appearance in our Scripture readings each year. Every time we come to Mass, we Catholics have the opportunity to receive that same Jesus, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist. But, as John would certainly remind us, we need to be properly prepared—properly disposed—for that encounter.

Notice that in today’s Gospel story, two groups of people are denounced—“chewed out” if you will—by John: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.


It’s because these men were not prepared to receive Jesus! They weren’t ready to receive him because they weren’t repentant—and John knew it! That’s why he shouted at them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”

John knew they weren’t sincere; he knew that they were just “going through the motions” by coming to receive his baptism; he knew that they really didn’t think they were sinners in need of God’s mercy and pardon.

As Catholic Christians we need to be careful—lest we simply “go through the motions” when we come to receive Jesus in Holy Communion at Mass. And how do we avoid that pitfall? Simple: through sincere repentance. Before we approach the altar for the Body and Blood of the Lord we need to repent—sincerely and properly—of any serious sins we’ve committed.

We do that, of course, in the confessional—or as it’s often called nowadays, the “reconciliation room.”

But even if we don’t have mortal sins on our soul, frequent confession—frequent repentance—is necessary if we’re really serious about growing closer to Jesus in our lives. If we’re satisfied with spiritual mediocrity then it doesn’t matter; but if we want to be the best people, the best disciples of Christ that we can possibly be, then Confession is crucial.

So I suppose you could say that ultimately John the Baptist comes to us every Advent to remind us to get to Confession!

Now I’m sure we have some men and women here with us today who have been avoiding Confession—or who have not made a good, thorough Confession—for a long time. Since that’s probably the case, let me now address some of the more common excuses people will use for staying away from this most important sacrament. Perhaps some of these will sound familiar.

Objection #1: “Father, if I go to Confession the roof will fall in on the church.”

I have done extensive research on this subject, and I have not found one instance in 2,000 years of Christian history, of a roof ever caving in on a church because somebody went to Confession!

Objection #2: “I don’t need to go, because I confess my sins directly to God every day.”

Very good. So do I. There’s only one problem with that: your sins don’t just involve you and God. Your sins involve you, God AND OTHER PEOPLE! So you need reconciliation with the Lord and with your brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s what happens in Confession. The priest not only acts in the person of Christ; he also represents the community that you’ve offended by your sins. So when you’re reconciled in the sacrament, you’re reconciled vertically and horizontally: with the Lord, AND with others.

Objection #3: “Father Ray will yell at me.”

Do not confuse Fr. Ray at the pulpit with Fr. Ray in the reconciliation room. There is a difference, believe it or not. In my priesthood I have always tried to follow the advice of St. Alphonsus Liguori, who once said that a priest should be a “lion in the pulpit, but a lamb in the confessional.”
Trust me; I’m not so bad. Here it’s “roar, roar”; there it’s “bah, bah.”

Objection #4: “Fr. Ray will remember my sins and not like me anymore.”

Since I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday morning, it’s highly unlikely that I will remember your sins. I’ve literally heard a million of ‘em! Of course, if that’s a big concern you can always go anonymously behind the screen, or you can go to a priest you don’t know. On that note, we will have extended periods of Confession on the next two Saturdays, as we do every Advent and Lent. Fr. Giudice will be here helping me next Saturday afternoon from 2:30 until 4:30, and Fr. Myers will be here the Saturday after that at the same time. Go to one of them if you’d rather not go to me. It’s the same Jesus who will forgive you!

Objection #5: “I don’t have any sins.”

Another form of this objection is: “I don’t know what my sins are.”

This little difficulty can be easily overcome in one of two ways: either you can make a formal, academic examination of conscience, or you can make what I would call a “living examination of conscience.”

The academic version involves sitting down and honestly answering some questions about your life, questions like those found on the sheet that I’ve inserted into this week’s bulletin. How convenient, eh? I’ve given this out before, but some of you might have missed it and others might have lost or misplaced it.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then there is this alternative: find someone who knows you well, and ask them to tell you your sins! They will help you to make a “living” examination of conscience. If you’re married, for example, I’m sure your spouse would be happy to give you a rather lengthy list of what you do wrong. And think of how happy you’ll make your husband or wife in the process! They’ll really enjoy assisting you in this way, I can almost guarantee it!

And finally, objection #6: “I’ve committed too many serious sins for God to forgive me.”

If you honestly believe that you’re “too far gone” in terms of the sins you’ve committed in your life, my suggestion is that you get a copy of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” on DVD and watch it within the next few days.

I’m serious about that.

Jesus Christ went through that living hell so that every sin from the beginning to the end of time could be washed away. If for some reason you think your particular sins are beyond his forgiving touch, then in effect you’re telling him that he wasted his time when he went through all that on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. I don’t think that any of us would want to say that to Jesus.

John the Baptist is back! He’s back once again with his message of repentance, to prepare the people of God to receive Jesus spiritually at Christmas, and eucharistically at every Mass.

May we all heed his message—and may we do so not only during this season of Advent, but throughout the year.