Second Sunday of Advent: 12-4-16
Peace be with You,
Last weekend, as we began the season of Advent, we saw that in order for us to be truly ready to welcome our Savior, we must prepare ourselves for his coming by living in a manner which disposes us to become his disciples. We do this, as St. Paul reminded us by “putting on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). These words have a couple of connotations which are especially important for the message we will receive today. First, and most importantly, it recalls the moment of our baptism, when we were claimed for Jesus Christ, and made not just a follower of his, but transformed and renewed in his likeness so that as He truly is the Light of the World (John 8:12) we too might become light in the darkness by partaking in His Light which is Life Itself (recall the words of the Creed “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God…”). Secondly, and consequently, to “put on the armor of light” means nothing else except to “put on Jesus Christ” by allowing Him to live through us as Paul so often calls us to do. What is the “armor of light?” In his letter to the Ephesians Paul describes it as ‘the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, putting the gospel of peace on our feet (so that it may guide our steps), the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:10-17). By putting on this armor, we at one and the same time imitate the life of the Savior and “arm” ourselves to take part in what we saw C. S. Lewis call “a great campaign of sabotage,” (Mere Christianity, 46), that is, establishing the Kingdom of God here and now, as the prayer that Jesus taught us calls us to do (Thy Kingdom come…Matthew 6:10). Picking up on this same theme this weekend, we will see that it is precisely the coming of Jesus Christ that brings us the equipment we need to take part in such an endeavor.
The gospel from this weekend picks up on what some may see as the dark imagery that we encountered last weekend where Jesus spoke of “the thief in the night” coming when we least expect him (Matt 24:43). Ironically, we saw that this thief is actually Jesus Christ himself, who comes to set humanity free from the grips of sin and death which is the domain (house) of the Devil. This weekend, this type of warning comes from him who prepared the way of the Lord (Matt 3:3), John the Baptist. In today’s gospel we hear the Baptist warn the religious leaders of his day saying: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (Matt 3:7). Not exactly what we would think of as Christmas tidings is it? But perhaps it should be, let me explain. We see John the Baptist telling the Pharisees and Sadducees that they should quit relying on their earthly status and instead “Produce good fruit as evidence of [their] repentance” (Matt 3:8). The reason why John’s words are so blunt is that he realizes what is about to happen, the Savior that Israel has been waiting for is about to arrive and if the people don’t seriously change their way of thinking, he will come and go just as Jesus warned us last weekend, as a thief in the night. This change in thinking requires the people to “repent;” to realize that they have gone astray from the way God called them to live, and it is imperative that they do so immediately in order that they may recognize the One who will come after John bringing with Him a radically life-transforming gift, the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11). John’s message is so desperate and strong because he knows that to receive this Gift of Life requires that we recognize that we are in need of such transformation. If, on the other hand we think all is as it should be, we won’t be properly disposed to receive the Gift that the Savior comes to bestow upon us. The question for us is the same. How do we view the coming of Christ? What do we anticipate will be its effect?
We are easily caught up in the beautiful lights strung on houses, trees, fences, and lampposts. We desperately scramble to buy that last gift (or many of them) to be able to exchange them at family and company get-togethers. All of this is said to be part of the “feel of Christmas,” which of itself sounds like a good thing. But again, what is “the feel of Christmas”? What is it that we scramble to make preparation for? If the “feel of Christmas” is simply some warm, fuzzy and exciting feeling we anticipate feeling when being around family and friends accompanied by the slight exhilaration of tearing into a beautifully wrapped package, then we can be sure that this Christmas will be just like the last. Many of us will look at each other and say, “That went by so fast! Where did the time go?” Why is that? I suggest it is because generally nothing happens at Christmas worth happening. I know, those are not nice words to hear (and perhaps I’ve caught the “coming wrath bug” of John the Baptist), but hear me out. Jesus doesn’t want this Christmas (or any day of our lives for that matter) to be just like the rest. God didn’t become man to drop in and say ‘hi’ to remind us that He’s still there caring for us from someplace far away, so that the proper response at Christmas is to politely say ‘hi’ back and go about our merry way as if we were acquaintances walking passed one another on the sidewalk; a forgettable experience that we might tell our wives and kids about in casual conversation “guess who I saw today…” before discussing the really important matters like bills and promotions. NO! As all the Church Fathers would say in one form or another, God became man so that man might become God! If you didn’t read that and double check what was written there is a problem. If that doesn’t blow your mind and even sound just a bit heretical, then this Christmas will pass by without anything worthwhile happening. Yes, God became man so that man might become God. How does this happen? By sharing in the very Life of God through His Gift of the Holy Spirit.
This is the reason for the coming of the Son of God into the world. He took up a human nature so that healing it from the darkness of sin and death, he would re-create it; disposing us once again to be able to partake in the life we were created for in the very beginning. In other words, by hypostatically uniting himself to a human nature, the Son of God makes it possible for the human family to be incorporated into the intimacy of Trinitarian Life. We are incorporated into this life at the Baptism spoken of by John in the gospel for today. It is that same Holy Spirit that allows us to partake of the Life of God, given to us through the Son. The Holy Spirit is the Gift that Jesus came to bestow upon us. For this reason Isaiah’s prophecy for this weekend speaks of what has traditionally come to be known as the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These gifts are nothing other than the qualities of Christ which become ours when we receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord. These qualities are integral to our proper development as creatures imprinted with the imago Dei at the time of our formation for they bring to maturity the Life of God within us. For this reason in writing on the Sermon on the Mount, St. Augustine would pair each gift with both a beatitude and a petition of the Our Father, and in a similar fashion, St. Thomas Aquinas would pair them with what he called the “capital virtues.” St. Augustine would add that to live a life of virtue is to strive after happiness, and that “If virtue leads to the happy life, then I would not define virtue in any other way than as the perfect love of God” (The Way of the Catholic Church, pg. 22), while St. Gregory of Nyssa would go one step further and say that ‘God is virtue.’
My friends, what God has in mind for us this Christmas is a radical transformation, what He wants, in short, is to make us like Himself. And He knows that we can’t do this on our own. He knows that the only way to become like Him is for Him to first become like us. This is the meaning of the Christmas Season, and the Season of Advent is the anticipation of that transformation. Ask yourself, what would happen if I were really transformed this Christmas? It’s hard to imagine, and to put it simply, if we all allowed ourselves to be transformed by the coming of Christ this Christmas (and everyday), things would happen that we could never imagine. If we want to begin to imagine what this might look like, we might consider the words of St. Paul today, who exhorts us to “live in harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6). Hard to imagine such harmony in our world today, yet this is precisely what Isaiah portrays in our first reading as well, writing that when He upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests appears, “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them…There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:6 & 9). Such a picture, though unbelievable, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the power of God can do within our lives if we let it. This season, God desires to show the world His glory, and He desires to show the world His glory through you! “For the glory of God is a living human person; and the life of the human person consists in beholding God” (St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, Bk 4.20.7). The Son of God is coming this Christmas, will you behold Him, and accept the gift of His Life, or will you pass him by like an ordinary acquaintance on the sidewalk? Your answer will make all the difference in the world, not only for you, but for everyone you meet!
Your servant in Christ,