3rd Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans
On a Delta flight from Rome to Atlanta a few days ago, I overheard one of the flight attendants talking to a woman waiting to use the restroom. I couldn't make out what she was saying exactly, but there was no mistaking her accent, Deep Southern. When she came back up the aisle I asked where she was from. She smiled and said, “Memphis!” I told her my family lives right outside Memphis in north MS. Her smile got a lot bigger. Being good southerners, we immediately launched into the southerner's favorite game of “Who's your family?” Who's your mama's people? Who'd she marry? Are we cousins? Turns out that we aren't related but that hardly matters. We know where we're from and b/c we know where we're from, we know who we are and what we are about. Catholics play a similar game: what's your parish? Who's your pastor? Where did you go to school? All good questions. But do the answers to these questions tell us what it is to be Catholic? What it means to be a follower of Christ, to be a child of God? When you come to face the Lord at last, he will ask, “Who are you?” How will you answer?
The Jews in Jerusalem have their version of our Southern and Catholic games. They send priests to question John the Baptist. They ask him, “Who are you?” He answers, "I am not the Christ." A bit baffled, they continue, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” No. “Are you the Prophet?” No. “Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself?” You can hear the frustration in their voices; you can hear their confusion and fear. They need to know who this desert freak is before they can decide whether or not to take him seriously; before they can decide what—if anything—to do with him! Is he dangerous? Crazy? Possessed? Who is this guy and what is he up to? So, what does John the Baptist have to say for himself? He says this: "I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, 'make straight the way of the Lord. . .'" Well, that's certainly. . .um, helpful. You're a voice. . .a voice crying out in the desert. . .and you are crying out. . .“make straight the way of the Lord”? OK. Can you tell us what that means exactly? What does it mean to be “a voice in the desert crying out 'make straight the way of the Lord'”? John answers, “. . .there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie." Who is John the Baptist? He is the one who comes before the Christ to announce to God's people the advent of the Lord.
Now, who are you? You, all of you. Sitting here in St Dominic's Church, New Orleans. Who are you? We know that John is the herald of the Lord. He's not the Christ. He's not a prophet. He's a forerunner, a harbinger. Christ has yet to be born, and John is his living, breathing birth announcement. So, who are we? We can't be heralds or harbingers of Christ's advent in 2011. Christ has come; he's arrived; he is here! We can be forerunners of his coming again, his second coming. We can be the announcers of his return to us. Even better: we can be the Christs and the prophets that John could not be. Christ's own baptist, his death, and resurrection have made it possible for us—each of us—to be not only priests, prophets, and kings but Christs as well. Not simply followers of Christ, not merely members of the Church, not just pew warmers on a chilly Sunday morning/evening. We can and are made and remade to be Christs. Christs for one another. Christs for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed. Christs for those who do not know God's mercy. Christs for those who persecute us. Christs for anyone and everyone who feels the nearly irresistible tug of the Father's love. That's who are we and that's what we do.
Listen to this slightly edited version of Isiah's proclamation: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon US, because the Lord has anointed US; he has sent US to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives. . .to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.” We are the temples of the Lord's spirit. We are the anointed of God. We are the heralds of abundance, comfort, freedom. And we are the clarion voices of His favor and the prophets of His forgiveness. How is this possible? It was made possible by life, death, and resurrection of the Christ. When we were baptized, who we were died, the life we lived before vanished, and we were reborn in the image of the one who lived and died for us. That makes us Christs. . .as yet imperfect. . .but men and women nonetheless gifted with all we need to be made perfect. Our task now is to receive what God has given us and use these gifts to love the unlovable; to forgive the unforgivable; to suffer the insufferable; to pray in thanksgiving, to pray in gladness and joy, to pray always and most especially for those we most despise. Christ died once for all; as Christs we can work for nothing less.
How do we grow in this necessary holiness? How do we use God's gifts to come to Christ's perfection? Our brother, Paul, writes to the Church in Thessalonica, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. . .” Do not quench the Spirit. . .of gratitude, of rejoicing; the Spirit of Truth and Goodness and Beauty that created from nothing all that there is; do not quench the Holy Spirit who gave Mary a son; who graced Christ's baptism and named him Son of God; who set upon the dejected apostles and set them on fire for preaching the Good News; the one who possesses us even now, shaking us out of our dull complacency and demanding of us that we get on with the work of living day-to-day as the well-loved children of a ever-loving Father. Do you carry God's Word like a child in the womb? Do you call yourself a son or a daughter of the Most High? Do you burn with the Spirit's fire to proclaim the Good News? Do you reject this world's narcotic lure and keep your heart and mind pure in the faith? When you fail—and we all fail—do you seek God's forgiveness and receive His mercy? If you answer No to any of these questions, let me ask you another: who are you then? Who are you pretending to be?
John the Baptist called his people to attention and baptized them in repentance. While they waited on the advent of the Lord, they turned themselves around to face his coming. They turned from disobedience toward obedience; from sin toward holiness. As we wait on the advent of the Lord, his coming again, we too hear John's call to attention, his message of repentance: turn from sin and receive our Father's love. The Lord comes. The day of our rebirth is close to hand!
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