08 December 2013

Make straight the path

2nd Sunday of Advent (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of Rosary, NOLA

What does John come to do? When he walks out of the wilderness—a wild man, a prophet of God—what is his mission? Isaiah tells us, A voice of one crying out in the desert, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'” John is that voice. Eight-hundred years after Isaiah prophesied the coming of a desert-voice, John arrives to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Turn around. Go back. Get yourself right. The King is coming! Receive baptism with water to wash yourself clean and mark yourself repentant. Why? “Even now,” John preaches, “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.” What does John come to do? When he walks out of the wilderness—a wild man, a prophet of God—what is his mission? John's mission, our mission is to make straight the path for the Lord; to straighten the path to our hearts by repenting of our sins. Are you ready for the King's arrival? 
John warns us that when the King arrives, “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” That image—the fire of the Holy Spirit and the fire of judgment—should both comfort us and frighten us. John makes it clear that upon his arrival the King will sit in judgment: “He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” That's the frightening part b/c we have to ask ourselves: am I wheat, or am I chaff? The better question, the comforting question is: do I want to be wheat or chaff? Do I want to be gathered into the Lord's barn, or do I want to burn in a unquenchable fire? Asked that way, the answer seems obvious! “Well, duh, of course I want to be among the wheat that's gathered into the Lord's barn!” But we can say that and still think and speak and behave as if we long to be consumed in the fires of judgment. As primitive as this scenario may sound to our sophisticated 21st century ears, the fact is, God loves us and will honor our daily decisions to live apart from Him. And He will honor those decisions forever. Thus, John, fulfilling his mission as a prophet of repentance, calls us back to the Way, back to the path of righteousness so that our hearts and minds can faithfully follow Christ. The choice is ours to make. Repent and prepare the way of the Lord, or carry on in disobedience and prepare the way to an eternal death.

This is the choice that John gives the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to be baptized by him. He confronts them squarely with the discrepancy btw their desire for baptism and their words and deeds: “You brood of vipers!” he yells, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Now, it's not clear why these upstanding religious figures were coming to a disreputable wild man like John for baptism. Maybe they saw his popularity and hoped to cash in on it, or perhaps they saw an opportunity to siphon off some of his followers. Maybe they heard his preaching and sincerely desired to repent. Regardless, John doesn't receive them well. He accuses them of ignoring God's prophets of old and of living in hypocrisy. To remedy their offense, he demands that their behavior match their intention. He shouts at them: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” And just in case that they believe their status as descendents of Abraham will save them, he adds, “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” From all this shouting we know two truths: first, good intentions w/o good behavior are useless; and second, who we are matters not at all when it comes to the final judgment. We are all judged according to our deeds.

This shouldn't worry us at all b/c bearing good fruit comes easy to the followers of Christ, right? I mean, as men and women imbued with the Holy Spirit in water and fire, we live and breath as members of the Body of Christ. So, we have nothing much to worry about. Unfortunately, we all know the disappointment of intending the good while doing evil. The idea that we can want one thing while working for its exact opposite doesn't surprise us, does it? It's an almost universal human failing. We want to grow in holiness, yet consistently make choices that keep us from using His gifts. We want to stay away from sin, yet we constantly put ourselves near temptation. It's almost as if we can see the perfection we desire but believe that it is beyond our reach, beyond our merely human means to acquire. Well, the perfection we long for is beyond our merely human means to acquire! So are the good works that John the Baptist tells us we must do as evidence of our repentance. Bearing the good fruits of the Holy Spirit doesn't come naturally to us b/c the gifts required to produce those good fruits are supernatural. When we bear good fruit we do so only b/c we are cooperating with the supernatural gifts given to us by God.
What are those gifts? Isaiah tells us when describing the promised Messiah, “. . .a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.” Wisdom is the gift that allows us to know and love the things of God more than the things of man. Understanding perfects our ability to judge the truth against the lies of the world. Counsel makes it possible for us to distinguish right from wrong and to choose the right. The gift of strength empowers us to stand for what it is true, good, and beautiful against all assaults. The gift of knowledge gives us a glimpse of the divine in creation, revealing the hand of God in His works. Fear of the Lord is the gift of awe in His majesty, and to delight in that awe is gift of reverence. These gifts of the Holy Spirit perfect and strengthen the virtues we receive at baptism: faith, hope, and charity. Now, you may ask: Isaiah is describing the gifts that the Messiah will exhibit, what do those gifts have to do with us? They have everything to do with us b/c we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. What gifts he received from the Father, we receive as his brothers and sisters. He used these gifts to teach and preach the Good News of God's mercy. Now we follow him.

And we follow him best by heeding his herald, John. What does John come to do? When he walks out of the wilderness—a wild man, a prophet of God—what is his mission? He is charged with proclaiming a simple, prophetic message: “Repent and prepare the way of the Lord!” Are you ready? Is the path to your heart and mind straight and level? Are you prepared to received Christ the King? You have everything you could possibly need. You know and love God. You can tell the difference btw good and evil. You can judge rightly and chose wisely. You have the strength to resist temptation and fight the good fight. You can stand in awe of God and offer Him the worship that is His due. What do you think you might lack? What gift do you believe you still need? While we remain in this time of preparation, we can spend some time in sacrifice—make some of our time holy—by offering our weaknesses and failures to God. We can resolve to make better use of His freely given gifts. We can grow in humility and make ourselves better vessels to receive His Holy Spirit. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repentance is the first step, but it is not the last. You must prepare His way, make straight and level the path to your heart and your mind. The King of Glory is coming.

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  1. HV Observer7:41 PM

    And the "weekend associate" at our parish today only talked about the "peaceable kingdom" passages in today's Isaiah reading, and completely ignored the wheat and the chaff and the unquenchable fire. He is of a Certain Age, and he has what Douglas Adams called a "brickable smile" -- the kind of toothy grin that you just want to heave a brick at.

  2. Oh, Father... Well, there is a first time for everything: I don't believe I've ever called one of your homilies boring, but, well, I can't think of another way to describe my reaction to this one...except perhaps pedestrian, which does come to mind. I actually sighed and walked away midway through the second paragraph, coming back later to finish it. Fourth and fifth paragraphs were fine, and I liked your point in the final paragraph, especially the line: "Repentance is the first step, but it is not the last." But, I miss your "elevated" language and poetic prose, somewhat complicated sentences and lofty thoughts/ideas that made me think.

    Over the past year and a half, you raised my expectation of what a homily could be, so when your homilies don't live up to the standard you yourself set . . . .

    1. Yea, I know. . .I know. I've been in a BIG slump lately. . .probably b/c I'm not preaching everyday and b/c I don't have any real connection with the OLR parish other than my weekly visit.

      Here's another big reason: been reading a lot of literary fiction lately and I'm very conscious of not using the pulpit as a creative writing outlet. . .so, anything that sounds too literary, I dump.

      As always, appreciate your honesty!

    2. I have been thinking about what you wrote, ie not using the pulpit as a creative writing outlet. I may very well be misunderstanding you, but when I first began reading your homilies I found them solid and informative and challenging . . . but do you know why I kept coming back to read them day after day? Because in general they were incredibly beautiful. Your background in literature and especially poetry enhances what must be a natural way with words. Your writing is an absolute pleasure to read, and with my background in drama I pick up on all the cues you provide - tempo changes, volume changes, changes in intensity. Your better homilies are a workshop in how to write for the purpose of reading out loud. They call to be read out loud. So don't drop the "too literary" stuff without first considering what it might add to the homily. A little Beauty in the Midst of Truth might just be the way to go.

    3. Now you're just making me blush! But I get your point. I went back to read some of my old homilies, thinking I might give some of them to the seminarians as examples of what to do/not to do in specific situations. I can better make my point with my own work. As I read through some of them, I cringed at how they were trying to be. I don't remember trying to be artsy-fartsy, but. . .geez. . .do they read that way.

      I will try to find a better balance. It would help tremendously if I actually knew the people at OLR!

  3. I liked thi sone. Sorry Shelly! A straightforward no frills reminder of what it's all about! Thank you.

    1. Thanks, M! Different strokes for different folks, right?

    2. No reason to be sorry - if our Pastor had given this homily I would have fainted in disbelief! I just expect more from Fr. P! :-)

    3. (In my best Scarlett O'Hara voice): O, the woes of being held to such high standards! :-)