2nd Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Humans respond to fear. This is both a good and a bad thing. If fear prevents us from doing something incredibly dangerous – that's good. However, if fear drives us to do something incredibly stupid – that's bad. Politicians, media talking-heads, religious leaders – they all understand that fear can motivate human action or forestall it. So, they make liberal use of predictions to paint for us a picture where our only response can be one of fear. Fortunately, reality intervenes and their predictions are shown to be little more than scare tactics in a strategy to dominate us. Economists predicted the financial collapse of the UK if that nation left the E.U. Didn't happen. Climate scientists predicted a New Ice Age in the 70's if we didn't cut pollution. Didn't happen. Religious leaders of all stripes regularly predict the end-of-the-world on some specific date if we don't donate. Hasn't happened yet! Now, we read that John the Baptist is predicting the coming of the Messiah and the destruction of sinners if they do not repent. “Even now,” he 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.” Is he trying to make us fearful? Absolutely! But his fearful prediction is about freedom from sin and not worldly domination.
So, if politicians, scientists, religious leaders use predictions of doom and gloom to scare us into obedience, why should we believe John the Baptist when he predicts the coming of the Messiah and eternal fire for unrepentant sinners? One simple reason, really: he is right; that is, his prediction – or better named – his prophecy is fulfilled with the coming of the Christ Child. The Messiah has come, and he will come again. This is a fundamental truth of our faith. Not a truth meant to dominate us in the world, or to frighten us into religious submission. But a truth that sets us free from our slavery to sin and death. The coming of the Messiah is prophesied in the O.T. Some 800 years before the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Isaiah writes, “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.” We know that the Gentiles – the Magi – followed the signal – the North Star – to seek out the Infant Christ and found him glorious in his shepherd's hut. Recognizing him as their King, they prostrate themselves and give him the gifts due a priest, a prophet, and a king. John the Baptist's prophecy – his prediction – that the Messiah will come is fulfilled.
If we believe that his prediction concerning the Messiah comes true – and we do – then why would we doubt the second part of his fearful prediction? The part where he says, “[The Messiah] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” We shouldn't doubt this b/c this is precisely why the Messiah comes in the first place. Not to condemn. But to gather to himself those who have repented of their sins and followed after him in love. The “unquenchable fire” isn't so much a punishment as it is a consequence, the inevitable result of declining to live fully in the light of Divine Love. As I have preached to you many times over the years: we choose hell for ourselves. By living apart from God's love and His will, we choose to live outside His mercy forever in death. He will not force Himself on us. We must freely choose and then live out our freedom with good works. John the Baptist warns the Pharisees and us that our repentance must produce good fruit to be secure. He preaches, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Where is my good fruit? Where is yours?
I am thankful everyday that I am not left alone to produce the good fruits of repentance. I shudder to think what I would choose on my own. I have my Dominican brothers; the seminary faculty, staff, and seminarians; friends and family. I have a great cloud of witnesses bearing me up, and dozens of faithful Catholics praying for me. And it is this unity of purpose – the one heart and one mind of the Church – that holds everyone of us up. Paul writes to the Romans, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” With endurance and encouragement we think in harmony! With one voice we give glory to God! That's how we begin to produce the good fruits of repentance – by staying close to the heart and the mind of the Church, giving thanks and praise to God, and doing everything that we do, and saying everything that we say, and thinking everything that we think for no other reason than to give God the glory. Do this. . .and you will bear the most excellent fruit.
We await the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas. And we await his coming again at the end of the age. While we wait, we prepare. We prepare by remaining in good spiritual shape. By exercising our sacraments. By fasting and prayer. And by remembering always: our God has given us every encouragement to endure in peace until His Christ should again appear. Remain one heart, one mind, in the service of one Lord.
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