Editor’s note: The following homily was preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (December 4, 2022), at Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore (Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter).
We have completed one-fourth of our Advent journey; thankfully, we have a full four weeks this year. Advent is a season of hope, but a hope based on reality, which corresponds to the truth of who God is and who we are. Any other kind of “hope” is false hope and thus harmful, both spiritually and psychologically – which are really one and the same thing if we are dealing with a healthy form of spirituality and a valid method of psychology. In the final analysis, self-deception is so cruel because it cheats people of reality now and often for eternity. It is against this background that the Baptist’s statement today makes any sense: “Bear fruit that befits repentance.” Jesus will allow for no game-playing and has rather harsh words for those committed to just such activities.
Protestants frequently accuse us Catholics of plugging into “cheap grace,” by which they mean a less than honest and whole-hearted attempt to change our lives. Too often they are right. How should we deal with that charge? By seeking out and accepting only “costly grace.” The font of grace available to us cost Jesus His life; should it cost us anything less?
We “bear fruit that befits repentance” by endeavoring to live a virtuous life, by responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who came to us in Baptism and then sealed that relationship by granting us His seven-fold gifts in Confirmation. Responding positively to the Holy Spirit automatically means responding negatively to Satan, the world, and the flesh. If “Jesus is Lord” is anything more than idle banter, He must be Lord of every aspect of our lives or Lord of none; we cannot harbor areas “safe” from His Lordship, thus subtly admitting of the legitimacy of a Lordship divided more or less equally between Satan and Christ. The Kingdom that we await makes no provision for divided loyalties.
Evidence of reform comes when we are willing to declare our sinfulness, humbly confess those sins to another man who represents Christ to us, and then promise (and mean) that we intend never to do these things again. Going to confession without this mindset makes a mockery of the Sacrament of Penance, and that’s what non-Catholics are thinking about when they speak of “cheap grace.” Steering clear of the Sacrament altogether because “I know I’ll do it all again” is just as wrong because it is self-defeating and questioning of God’s will (and power) to save. That is a denial of grace. Accepting only costly grace is the answer that leads to union with the Lord, who inaugurates and consummates His Kingdom in the whole world and in each of us as individuals.
Now, once we have gotten our own personal act together, we shall be in a position to have an external, public witness, highlighted by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council as a work uniquely that of the laity. William Ullathorne, the diocesan bishop of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, once asked him what he thought the role of the laity might be. In unusually laconic fashion for him, he replied: “We would look foolish without them!” Of course, that was but a latter-day version of Moses’ retort to Joshua: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Num 11:29). Not infrequently, when bishops speak out on matters of moral concern, they are ignored by the elites who assert that the bishops do not speak for their people; indeed, that their people are much more in sync with the secular ethos. Unfortunately, they are often more right than we would like to admit.
It is always a source of great distress to me when otherwise serious Catholics tell me that no one in their workplace knows they are Catholic! Which means they are “closeted” Catholics – a veritable contradiction of the vocation given them through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. I am going to suggest this morning that anyone here living such an existence take for their Advent model the figure of St. John the Baptist, who looms so large over the Advent landscape.
Few characters in the Bible, indeed in all of literature, are more intriguing than John the Baptist. From his mother’s womb to his beheading, John embodied a commitment to the truth and to conversion, making him the greatest of all the prophets, as he prepared the way for God’s Son by his constant calls to repentance. Although John served as a bridge between the two testaments, he was no fence-sitter and thus bravely jumped into the world of the New Covenant, which would eventually be sealed in Christ’s Blood.
In recent years, we have heard the words “prophet” and “prophetic” bandied about quite a bit in certain ecclesiastical circles, all too often to describe those who rebel against the immemorial Catholic Tradition. Can we say “German Synodal Way” here? The true prophet, however, does not stand against the Church but against a culture which has lost its identification with a divine perspective on reality. The classical prophet was not a forerunner of Madame Zelda on the boardwalk, nor a hostage to the left wing of the Democratic Party. John the Baptist, then, was a man so sensitive to God’s holy will and law that he stood head and shoulders over the mass of humanity in his courage and conviction. He proclaimed his message (which was really God’s message) to great and small alike, so that prostitutes heard and accepted his invitation to reform their lives while the mighty Herod, at the instigation of Salome, lopped off his head for daring to challenge his immorality.
It is easy to condemn “social sin” and “the sinful structures of society”; it is much harder to see sin and to name it in individual persons. To rage against multi-national corporations doesn’t take much courage; for a bishop to warn a governor that he risks going to Hell for his part in the killing of unborn babies, ah, then one finds a worthy heir to John the Baptist. Silence bespeaks expediency, complicity, and cowardice, and John the Baptist never kept silent, for even in the womb he announced the truth of Christ (see Lk 1:44). He was bold and even brash when confronting the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (“You brood of vipers” [Lk 3:7]), like a churchman today who reminds people that they cannot take refuge in Sunday Mass attendance while remaining attached to sins of materialism, irresponsible gambling, excessive drinking, fornication, artificial contraception, pornography, other disordered forms of sexuality, or a host of other actions.
Genuine prophets lash out against false religious security out of a love for the truth, but also out of a love for the individual who has allowed himself to become anesthetized by a false brand of religion. Granted, John the Baptist wasn’t the type of fellow to be invited as religious window-dressing at a fashionable cocktail party. But he wasn’t interested in making people enjoy transient parties; he was intent on preparing people for the eternal banquet of the Kingdom.
Two strange sayings in connection with John the Baptist are attributed to Our Lord in the Gospels. The first asserts that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force” (Mt 11:12). What could Jesus have meant?
Exegetes and preachers have offered some ingenious interpretations over the centuries, but the one which has the most appeal for me is the suggestion that one must be passionate about God’s reign over humanity – the lukewarm and the disinterested, objective third parties do not inherit the Kingdom – only those committed enough to make of it a life-or-death matter. There is no free ride to the Kingdom; Bonhoeffer referred to “the cost of discipleship.” If it cost John the Baptist his head, can we expect to get off scot-free? Unrealistic at best, presumptuous at worst.
Nowadays, passion for religion is labeled fanaticism, rigidity, and psychosis – including by certain ecclesiastical leaders who are apparently embarrassed by those who hold lesser places in the Church, but with greater conviction. Well, maybe that’s a problem of the age. At any rate, passion for religion or commitment to the truth are just alternative expressions for the love of God. And if God is real, then He’s not only worth living for; He’s also worth dying for. So, yes, the violent like John the Baptist enter the Kingdom.
Secondly, Jesus declares that as great as John the Baptist was, anyone born into the Kingdom is greater than he (see Mt 11:11). Like Moses in many ways, the Baptist saw the Kingdom as closely as possible without fully experiencing it this side of the grave: No Church, no Baptism, no Eucharist, no Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit for John. He saluted salvation from some distance and so had to wait for eternity. Jesus is not downgrading John the Baptist as much as He is trying to make us aware of the knowledge and identity given to us once the Kingdom would break into human affairs through His paschal mystery.
We, insignificant and unknown people, are greater than John the Baptist because of what God has done with us, for us and in us through His beloved Son. We are a purchased people. We have been given the knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom. We know Jesus Christ and recognize ourselves as members of His mystical Body, the Church. “Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Mt 13:17). Indeed, as the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil puts it, “Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.” Greater than John the Baptist? What a humbling and exalted thought at one and the same time! Humbling, once we realize that this is all God’s work and not ours. Exalted, because we know that St. Augustine was right when he exclaimed, “God became man that men might become gods.”
Jesus also made one other interesting comment about John – and his audience. He was a light burning brightly in whom the people delighted for a while (see Jn 5:35). Two lessons are worth drawing out here: First, a candle does its job by burning itself out. Similarly, the preaching and living out of the Gospel are activities which call for the investment of one’s whole personality. When the Gospel has been timidly preached, it can never be fiercely lived. As an Anglican archbishop of the last century put it: After Paul preached, there were riots; after I preach, they serve tea! No, would-be prophets have to offer a light which is bright, clear, and constant; only then will people be willing and able to walk by its light.
Second, people rejoiced in John’s message – for a time. Their enthusiasm was short-lived because he began to hit home. The Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to remark that one generally becomes a popular preacher by talking about the sins one’s people don’t commit. Thus comes the frequent line after Sunday Mass, “Boy, you sure told them, Father!” Catholics should become nervous if the New York Times starts praising popes and bishops because, in all likelihood, it will not be that the Times is becoming Christian but that the hierarchs are becoming worldly. Committed believers have to be ready to accept the Gospel’s challenge to reform every day and in every area of their lives. When we say, “Jesus is Lord,” we cannot carve out areas of existence exempt from His Lordship.
John knew this as a preacher, but he learned it first by being a penitent. What held everything together for the Baptist was a permanent attitude of penance. He never hesitated to demand austerity in his listeners because he lived it himself, manifested even (or perhaps especially) in his garb and in his diet (see Mt 3:4). When a nun in lay clothes and earrings lectures on social justice, it rings just a bit hollow since one can logically ask why she doesn’t get rid of the secular outfits, give the money to the poor, and live as a public witness of her message even in the silent sermons of her habited presence. When a priest condemns the lifestyles of the rich and famous, his talk is less than convincing to a congregation which knows that he frequents the very same places as the rich and famous. When parishioners in suburbia call for pottery chalices and burlap vestments to bring about a Church of the simple and poor, one can only be either amused or revolted at the crystal and damask on their own dining room tables.
Jesus said John was violent; that he was a light. But He also said we are greater than he. The study of his character and a whole-hearted living of the Advent season can make that saying of the Lord come true as well.
In one of Newman’s Advent sermons—“Worship, A Preparation for Christ’s Coming” (Dec 2, 1838)—the then-very young Anglican clergyman made these salient points regarding the days of this holy season:
They are times when we may humbly expect a larger grace, because they invite us especially to the means of grace. This in particular is a time for purification of every kind. When Almighty God was to descend upon Mount Sinai, Moses was told to “sanctify the people,” and bid them “wash their clothes,” and to “set bounds to them round about”; much more is this a season for “cleansing ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” [Ex 19:10-12; 2 Cor 12:1]; a season for chastened hearts and religious eyes; for severe thoughts, and austere resolves, and charitable deeds; a season for remembering what we are and what we shall be. Let us go out to meet Him with contrite and expectant hearts; and though He delays His coming, let us watch for Him in the cold and dreariness which must one day have an end. Attend His summons we must, at any rate, when He strips us of the body; let us anticipate, by a voluntary act, what will one day come on us of necessity. Let us wait for Him solemnly, fearfully, hopefully, patiently, obediently; let us be resigned to His will, while active in good works. Let us pray Him ever, to “remember us when He cometh in His kingdom”; to remember all our friends; to remember our enemies; and to visit us according to His mercy here, that He may reward us according to His righteousness hereafter.
The dawn of a secular new year is often accompanied by hearty resolutions to change one’s mode of living – regrettably, noted more in the breach than in the observance within a few short days or weeks. Might I challenge you good folks today to do two things. First, lay claim to the graces Cardinal Newman highlighted and, then, make a resolution at the outset of this new year of grace, this new liturgical and ecclesiastical year: With the example of the Baptist shining before you, abandon your “closeted” Catholicism. Indeed, make this the Advent when you came dancing out of that damnable closet.
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