Advent Second Sunday
A Homily - B Cycle - 2002-2003

First Reading - Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Psalm 85: 9-10, 11-12, 13-14
Second Reading - 2 Peter 3:8-14
Gospel - Mark 1:1-8

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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
        he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
        "Prepare the way of the Lord,
        make straight his paths."

John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.  John was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist.  He fed on locusts and wild honey.  And this is what he proclaimed: "One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Among all the persons depicted in the Gospels, John the Baptist has always been one of the most intriguing of saints.  John the Baptist was a phenomenally persuasive preacher - he inspired his hearers to confront their sins and to seek God's forgiveness for them.  He was a bit eccentric as well, with his camel shirt and eating locusts and honey.  His austerity and total devotion and zeal intrigued all kinds of people, so much so that they came from near and far to hear him preach in the desert.  John the Baptist wasn't about sugar-coating anything.  He was direct, often blunt and very exacting.  Yet, people loved to hear him preach.  Even Herod, who was often the target of John's preaching because of his adulterous affair, loved to hear his persuasive discourse.  John The Baptist had no desire for human respect.  He simply desired to bring souls back to the Father and out of the darkness of sin.  At times, his words could sting the hearts of the Pharisees, who presumed to be saved simply because they were of the lineage of Abraham.

It's no wonder then why John the Baptist is never quoted in Christmas cards.  I can just see it now - Hallmark releases John the Baptist Christmas card greeting - box set of 20.  One of them could be a picture of him on the front with his camel shirt, eating locusts and honey and inside it reads, "Repent - you brood of vipers! - Merry Christmas!"

This morning, we hear the beginning of St. Mark's Gospel, which opens with a quotation from another messenger, who lived centuries before the Baptizer - the prophet Isaiah.  St. Jerome called Isaiah the "Evangelist of the Old Testament" because so many of Isaiah's prophecies pointed directly at the coming of Christ and how He would have to suffer and die like a lamb led to the slaughter.  We should not overlook the fact that mark's Gospel does not really begin with Jesus or John the Baptist.  Rather, the Gospel begins long ago, with the quotation from Isaiah that exhorts us to prepare the way for the Lord and to make straight his paths.  Imagine for a moment, that you are a Jew living in the Holy Land at the time of John the Baptist.  For centuries, prophets, kings and other religious leaders had been predicting the coming of the Messiah.  Most thought that he would be a political Messiah to deliver the Jews from Roman occupation.  When John the Baptist shows up on the scene, he is announcing that the long-expected Messiah would soon be amongst them.  When Jesus shows up on the scene, He isn't what many people had in mind.  How often is this so true for each of us?  Isn't it so often that we expect Christ to make His presence known in ways that fit our way of thinking and yet so often we see that Christ comes to us in ways that often are quite unbelievable and so very simple.  Even in the Eucharist, Christ comes among us substantially, not amidst great pomp and circumstance with trumpets blaring.  Rather, He chooses to come among us under the appearances of bread and wine.  This is the great miracle of the Eucharist: that even though it is Christ's body and blood present on the altar, the appearances of bread and wine remain even though nothing of bread and nothing of wine are really present.

As appealing as John the Baptist was to his hearers, he always identified himself as nothing more than a messenger.  This humility deserves our consideration.  After awhile, John the Baptist attracted his own followers.  In fact, some of the Lord's apostles were originally disciples of John the Baptist.  The Baptist never intended to attract people to himself.  He lived to prepare for the coming of the Lord.  He is the consummate Advent model.  John the Baptist never received the earthly consolation of having seen Jesus complete his earthly ministry and later rise from the dead and ascend into heaven.  He laid his life down in witness to the truth of the person of Jesus, not knowing what his reward would be.  When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, John said, "Behold the Lamb of God," and his followers immediately left him to follow Jesus.  There is no trace of jealousy or bitterness on the part of John the Baptist.  He does not ask our Lord for praise or any signs of the Lord's gratitude. He merely sowed the seeds of repentance and conversion that Jesus would take up in His own public ministry. 

This can often be our experience in the work of the apostolate.  Our example or zeal for the faith may be a spark that inspires another to return to an active practice of the Catholic faith.  We may loose touch with individuals whom we have influenced by our words or our encouragement or by our manner of living.  It may not be until each of us, God-willing, is in heaven, that we will truly know the impact our lives had on others.  A few years ago, as a seminarian, I had the privilege of being part of the 50th birthday celebration of a priest-mentor of mine who would eventually preach my First Mass, which was 6 months ago tomorrow.  During the reception, several couples, in their 40s and 50s approached me to introduce themselves and each of them offered words of encouragement to me to persevere in my desire to become a priest.  Four of these couples also attested to the fact that it was thanks to my priest-mentor that each of them was still married to their spouse.  Each couple had amazing stories of how this priest was able to work with God's grace to help keep them together.  Talk about making an impact...  For now, each of us should have the same desire as the Baptist to bring souls to Christ and to make Jesus present in the world, taking the Eucharist we receive at Mass and being broken and spent for others.

John the Baptist claims that his baptism would be that of water while the baptism of Jesus would be of the Holy Spirit.  "What's the difference," you may ask?  John's baptism, like the rites of the Old Testament were merely symbolic of grace.  The baptism of Jesus in the Holy Spirit would be far more than symbolic - this baptism would actually  affect change in the person in a permanent way by impressing the mark of "Christian" on the soul.  While John's baptism would only signify grace, the baptism of Jesus in the Holy Spirit would actually cause grace.  Hence, Jesus Christ introduces a whole new dynamic through the sacraments.  No longer would any of the rituals be symbolic or merely sentimental - the rituals of the sacraments would actually become real vehicles for grace.  Again, this is most evident in the Eucharist when ordinary bread and wine are changed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus or in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, when the infirm receive not only a spiritual healing but a physical healing as well on occasion.

Another type of healing also occurs in the Sacrament of Penance - in confession.  This is where we confront our sinfulness, in the tradition of John the Baptist's exhortation.  If you have not done so already this Advent, I strongly encourage you to approach this sacrament.  In the confessional, the truth is never a problem.  In the confessional, real healing occurs - souls are reconciled to God and the Church and one again, we can renew our desire to want to strive to be saints.  Confession is not for the saint - it is for the sinner and what better way to start the new year than by allowing God to wipe clean the slate of our soul.

So, in these remaining 17 days of Advent, let us each commit to making the path for each other a bit easier.  By our words and action of kindness, our transcendence of petty bickering in our families, our detachment from all the material pleasures that our culture offers that distract us from Jesus, and our spirit of gratitude for the year that was, may Advent teach us at last that preparation for our Lord's birth first begins in the heart.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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