08 December 2019

Show Christ your face

2nd Sunday Advent 2019
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

How long do you think John the Baptist would last in parish ministry? With his poor wardrobe choices, his unprofessional hygiene standards, and his aggressive preaching, I'd give him a week, maybe two. And that assumes he makes it out of seminary. I can just see the truckloads of letters pouring into the bishop's office even now. And while no self-respecting Catholic wants a slovenly, smelly pastor. . .his clothes and his hygiene are not his worst offense. Far, far worse than the animal skins and pungent body odor are the content and style of his preaching. Where are the jokes to put everyone at ease? Where's the pastoral concern spoken in a soft tone? Where are the cute stories to illustrate his homiletical point? Where are the reassurances of God's niceness? What we get instead is this: “Repent, you brood of vipers, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees and very tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” If you listen, you can hear John's bishop sobbing quietly in the background.

We could spend some time this evening exploring all the reasons John preaches the way he does, but one reason is immediately obvious: he believes what he preaches. He believes that repentance is necessary for salvation. He believes that God's judgment on the His people is imminent. He believes that unrepentant sinners will burn in hell for eternity. AND he believes that the long-promised Messiah is coming and will come again. Now, we don't know if John took any special joy in yelling at people or cursing them for their stubbornness, but we do know that he worked tirelessly to herald the arrival of Christ and to ready God's people to hear his saving Word. Why did he do this? Again, the answer strikes me as obvious: he loves God's people. In his mother's womb, John encounters the Christ Child, receiving his prophetic mission to go ahead of his Savior, preparing his way, making straight his paths. From that first meeting with Mary, and Jesus in her womb, John fiercely, steadfastly loves God's people and desires nothing more for them than their salvation. So, if telling them that they must repent hurts their feelings, well. . .so be it. The consequences of unrepented sin will do far, far worse than hurt their feelings. And no letter to the bishop will change that.

Once a semester I assign my seminarians the task of preaching what I call a “revivalist” homily; that is, a fire-breathing, pulpit-pounding homily that will jolt people into doing what they need to do to get to heaven. Since most of my guys are not converts from Evangelical Protestantism, the results are usually. . .tame. But still pretty aggressive by Catholic standards. As a class, we'll discuss why Catholic preaching doesn't follow John the Baptist's example. It used to. Think: Savonarola, Vincent Ferrer, the old-school Redemptorist mission preachers. But in the last fifty years or so, Catholic preaching has become limp, flavorless, and weak. Why is this? For me, it's an easy answer: the US Church became professional and middle-class. Professional, middle-class people don't take to being told to repent, or face eternity in hell. Catholic preachers got the message, and stopped. Besides it's easier to preach the Gospel of Nice and receive the applause of those who don't want to hear the Gospel in all its fullness. Living out our baptism vows on the way to holiness is hard work. We can do it b/c we have God's grace to nudge us along. But – as Jesus himself says – the gate is narrow. And a soul bloated on sin ain't gonna squeeze through.

So, on this second Sunday of Advent, ask yourself: have I repented of my sins? Have I been to confession? Where am I on the way to holiness? We have these days and weeks of preparation in order to clean house and ready ourselves to receive the Lord at Christmas. On a larger scale, we have our whole lives – long or short – to ready ourselves for his second coming, for his coming again in glory and judgment. Standing before the purity of the Just Judge your unrepented sins will feel like anger and wrath and sorrow, and you will find yourself self-condemned. Or upon arriving at the throne, you will show Christ his face in yours, and you will welcomed to the eternal wedding feast. All the niceness in the universe; all the professional middle-class values in the world; all the theology, university degrees, and investment portfolios on the planet can't get you into heaven. What will get you into heaven is to go to the Lord on your last day and show him how much you resemble a child of the Father. Show him how you bore witness to his mercy. Show him how you loved the unlovable and forgave the unforgivable. Show him that you became a Christ for others.


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