Sunday, December 08, 2013

John the Baptist’s ‘Bifocals’


(Second Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 8, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 3: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Advent 2013]

John the Baptist wore bifocals.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that.

Actually, he didn’t wear the kind that many of us wear (the bifocals we wear weren’t even developed until the late 18th century, courtesy of Ben Franklin).

John the Baptist’s bifocals were of the spiritual variety.

Now why do I say that?

Well, very simply, it’s because bifocals help you to see things both up close and at a distance.  (And when you get to a certain age—like yours truly!—you desperately need that kind of help.)  Bifocals, in other words, help you to see everything.  They help you to see the complete picture, not just one dimension of reality.

And that’s the way it was for John the Baptist, spiritually speaking.  When John looked at another human being—and when John looked at himself—he saw the complete picture.  That is to say, he saw both the good and the bad.  He saw someone who was created in the image and likeness of God (and in that sense they were “good”); but at the same time he saw somebody who was a sinner in need of forgiveness and mercy. 

It wasn’t “either-or,” it was “both-and”.

All this is clear from today’s gospel reading from Matthew 3.  There John predicts that the Messiah, who is about to begin his earthly ministry, will someday baptize people “in the Holy Spirit”.  That prediction alone tells us a lot about how John saw himself and others.  God does not pour forth his Spirit into beings that are evil; he pours forth his Spirit into beings who have value, beings whom he loves, beings who are created in his image and likeness.

So here we have an implicit affirmation by John of the fundamental goodness of the human person.

But at the very same time John the Baptist also recognized the reality of human sin—in himself and in everyone else—which is why he was there at the Jordan River baptizing people and telling them to repent!

He wore spiritual bifocals—always!

The problem with the Pharisees and the Sadducees was that they saw only the goodness in themselves and not the sin.  They saw themselves only as “sons of Abraham,” and completely forgot about the fact that they were also the “sons of Adam”.  Their self-understanding was only one dimensional—until John enlightened them by calling them a “brood of vipers”! 

Spiritually speaking, they were a lot like I am—physically—when I have my “TV glasses” or my “computer glasses” on.  You know, I used to own one pair of glasses (actually two if you count my prescription sunglasses)—and they were good both for distance and for reading.  Then I reached my mid-40s and things got much more complicated, as my doctor, Sam Montalto, sadly predicted they would.  So now I have 5 pairs of glasses!  I have my bifocal sunglasses; I have my progressive bifocals without the line; I have my bifocals with the line that I use for Mass.  And I have two other pairs: my so-called “computer glasses” which are perfect for everything within 4 feet of my face.  Beyond that, everything is a big blur!  (Obviously I use them primarily when I’m working on my computer.)  And I have my so-called “TV glasses” which are only good for distance.  I need them because it’s hard to watch television from a recliner with bifocals!  (Those of you who have them know what I’m talking about.  Those of you who are too young to know what I’m talking about—don’t worry, someday you will!)

As I said a few moments ago, spiritually speaking the Pharisees and Sadducees were a lot like me when I have either my computer or TV glasses on: they only saw half of reality.  They only saw their goodness, not their sin.

Which makes them like a lot of people in our world today. 

This is one of the reasons why some men and women don’t go to confession—ever!  They don’t think they need it.  Like these religious leaders of the Jewish people, they have no trouble whatsoever seeing their value and goodness as human beings created in God’s image and likeness, but at the very same time they’re almost completely blind to their faults and failings.

The other big reason, of course, why some people don’t go to confession is that they have the exact opposite problem: They see their sin, but not their worth!  They know the evil that they’ve done; oh yes, they’re crystal clear about that!  But, unfortunately, for some reason, they don’t think that they can be forgiven (even though they can be).  Or perhaps they don’t think that God wants to forgive them, even though he does.

In fact, he wants to forgive them much, much more than they want to be forgiven!

To both these groups of people, John the Baptist would say, “Take them off!  Take off the ‘spiritual computer glasses,’ take off the ‘spiritual TV glasses,’ and put on a nice pair of ‘spiritual bifocals’!  And don’t ever take them off!  Know your dignity and goodness, yes—but also know and admit your need for forgiveness and mercy.  Believe it or not, doing both those things is the only way to find happiness; doing both those things is the only way to find inner peace!”

If you’ve heard the message of this homily today and do plan to follow John the Baptist’s advice, let me now remind you that both Fr. Giudice and I will be hearing confessions every Saturday of the season of Advent from 3:30 until 4:30pm here at St. Pius.  The two of us will also be taking part (along with several other priests) in a special ‘day of confessions’ at Immaculate Conception Church on Saturday, December 21.  So I will see you on one of those occasions—provided, of course, that I have on the right pair of my glasses, and provided that you have on your spiritual bifocals.