4th Sunday Advent (Year B)

As a society we seem to have lost our sense of amazement, of wonder. Sometimes, when I have watched a large aircraft – like a 747- take off, I consider how I may or may not understand the scientific principles of thrust and aerodynamics and lift that can bring this aircraft up off the ground and into the air; but whenever I see one of these large planes actually leave the ground, I am always amazed that something so big and so heavy can actually fly.

That sheer delight at looking around us, at all of the marvels and movements and sights and sounds in our world seems to be reserved to very small children; the simple; the unsophisticated.

And yet, wonder is one of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  We might know it by other names – awe, or fear of the Lord.  But that sense of awe, a truly deep sense of the greatness of the work of God in our own daily existence, is something that perhaps as a people, we tend to diminish, to repress, or even belittle. But wonder can lead to a sense of innocence and purity, which in turn leads to humility, which in itself opens us to a deeper sense of trust that with God all things are possible; and that there is wonder in everything around us; everything is a gift from God.

Sometimes we forget how much we depend on the goodness of God, and how often God has worked in and through our own lives.  And when we forget that, we lose that sense of wonder.

A very wise and dear friend once told me, “Grace is remembering; sin is forgetting.”

It  sometimes helps us to be ‘put in our place’ to gain a proper perspective, and to approach in humility and gratitude, the truly amazing gifts that God pours out on us, both individually and as a people of faith.

Take for example our first reading, relating how King David wanted to build a temple to house God; the God of the desert who had travelled with the children of Israel, and whose ark containing the law was kept in a tent – David reasoned that if he was the king and lived in a palace, then he would use his royal ‘greatness’ to build something great for God.  But it was God, speaking through the prophet Nathan who said to David, ‘you’re forgetting something here…I’m God; I have given you and your people everything that they have; and while you may be a king, you are still one of my creations – what kind of a house could you possibly build for me? What kind of structure could you make that would contain the Almighty – the Eternal – the Creator of All?”

Although well intentioned, the danger in what David proposed was that in building a structure to ‘house’ God or ‘contain’ God, was that – human nature being what it is – there might be a temptation for David to think that he ‘owned’ or could ‘claim’ God; as if somehow humans could control or direct God.  What may start as an attitude or gesture of thanksgiving and praise – could just as easily slide into arrogance and pride.

Contrast that attitude with the response of Mary in St. Luke’s Gospel; when told by the angel that, although a virgin, she would conceive and bear God’s Son, she didn’t propose conditions, or bargain with the angel – she didn’t try to constrain God’s action or attempt to place restrictions on how and when God should or could act in her life;  her response was simply, “Here I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word,”

Mary in her simple, humble response illustrates for each of us, the attitude of trust and thanksgiving that we are all encouraged to adopt in our own spiritual journey; we are invited to deepen our sense of wonder at God’s work in our lives and to see in that how truly everything we have and are is a gift, freely given by a God who holds nothing back in His love for us.

This particular time of year provides us with constant reminders of the giftedness of God’s love in the Incarnation of His Son; it provides us with reminders, particularly in the faces of children, of the wonder and beauty in things that perhaps as we have grown into adults, we have taken for granted and lost a sense of amazement at.

But the season of Advent, particularly these readings, also serves to remind us that even if we have lost that sense of wonder and gratitude at all that God has done for us, it is never too late to recapture it, to revive it; to open our hearts to it.  Because as the Angel said to Mary, ‘nothing will be impossible with God”.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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3rd Sunday Advent (Year B)

Have you ever been on a long drive with children in the car? Usually within the first half hour of travel, the question that every parent dreads hearing is asked….are we almost there? Here we are celebrating the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, as we continue preparing for the coming of Jesus. We light the rose-coloured candle, of the Advent wreath, almost as a sign of encouragement, that this season of preparation and penance is almost passed. So for the children among us, and for the child in each of us, as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, of Christ coming among us, it’s a symbol that, ‘yes, we’re almost there….but we’re not there yet.” The readings today bear out that feeling of nearness, that excitement of the ultimate event of God intervening directly into human affairs, of His coming among us as one of us. From the prophet Isaiah, the theme that the ‘Lord has anointed me to bring good news…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ – we hear this and read it and know the prophet is speaking of an event of incredible importance for every human being in the history of the world. It might be hard to remember this in the parking lots and stores right now, but St. Paul tells us in the second reading that we are to always be joyful; even in this season of Advent, which is a penitential season; a season of penance to prepare and cleanse our hearts to receive Jesus, as God makes His dwelling among us. It seems though, the closer we get to an event, the more we prepare for it, the greatest temptation is for our preparations to distract us – to even derail us in our focus on the reason for all this preparation; We say we are preparing the way of the Lord, for the coming of Jesus – for Christmas. But with all the decorating, and the cleaning and the buying and the selling and the parties and celebrations, the great temptation is to put all of our energies into ‘getting ready’, so that when the actual point of all this preparation arrives, we’re either too exhausted to enjoy it, or the actual event almost becomes anti-climactic or a none-event. Our plans and preparations take first place; if He’s fortunate, sometimes Jesus comes in a very distant second to those plans. We sometimes celebrate Christmas and forget to invite the guest of honour. Do we spend so much time and energy in preparing for Jesus, that when He arrives, we just sit around and look at Him and say, ‘well, that’s nice.” And then start thinking of Easter? Perhaps the greatest temptation particularly at this time of year, is that although Christ is always in our midst ; we become so preoccupied, that our plans and our goals, as well-intentioned as they may be, prevent us from seeing Jesus when he is right in front of us, in the poor, the lonely, the sick and suffering; those who have fears or doubts…. For the past two Sundays we have read in the Gospels about the mission of St. John the Baptist; preparing the way of the Lord. Today’s Gospel according to St. John the Evangelist picks up on a discussion between the Baptist and the Levites. They put John on the spot, and demand to know who he really is – is he the Old Testament prophet Elijah, somehow returned from heaven; or is he the Messiah? John the Baptist had a following; and he might have been tempted to answer the Levites that He was the Prophet , or he was the Messiah – the Baptist enjoyed some public popularity, and his followers would have no doubt supported such a claim in the interest of political power and prestige…he could have put himself first; the world certainly wouldn’t fault him for that, and the world might even encourage him to do that- to take what he could because he had the opportunity….yet the Baptist knew that this was not what God was calling Him to do. His preparations were not meant to take precedence over the one He was preparing the way for. In our society, putting ourselves second is foreign – confusing; even ridiculed. Our society says we cannot be happy if we don’t put ourselves first, if we don’t seek our own fulfillment, our own satisfaction – and if people become a means to that end, well then so be it. But God had called John to prepare the way for the coming of His Son, the Messiah; and John, in following this call of God, set himself in the subordinate position, not laying any claim to first place; he came to testify to the light – he was not the light; he prepared the way, and then stepped aside; later in this same Gospel, the Baptist would tell his own followers that he must decrease as Jesus must increase; decreasing in importance so that not only Christ would increase, but that others could increase in coming to know Christ; and we don’t have to think that only the greatest of Biblical characters knew anything about decreasing to allow God to increase…we have practical, realistic examples in our day to day lives. A truly loving relationship is all about decreasing to self so that the other may increase. In an ideal marriage, for example, it is not about a wife only decreasing to build up her husband. It is not about a husband only decreasing so that his wife may increase. It is about a sharing, a mutual decreasing of self interest, of a greater other-centeredness – so that each party is building the other up. And in this mutual self-giving, both husband and wife actually increase in their relationship. Or consider parenting…it’s been said that a parent’s ultimate job is to render themselves redundant, so that their child will be equipped to go out and make their own way in the world. Through the years, the ideal parent decreases in their own interests and ambitions to some degree, putting the development, rearing and growth of their child first – in other words, the parent decreases that the child may increase…Or look at those with elderly parents whose health is failing to the point that they eventually require greater assistance from their children… the ideal loving child puts their interests on hold to provide care for their parent…the child decreases that the parent may increase….. This decrease is a gift of self; the greatest gift we can give each other is the gift of self; and nowhere is this more clearly shown to us than in the Eucharist. Jesus continually gives Himself to us in Holy Communion, so that as we receive Him and the more we remain open to Him, the more He increases in us…and as He increases in us, our self-centeredness decreases; and there is the paradox – because as our self-interest shrinks, and Jesus grows in us, we become more fully human and holy, and move closer to that true holiness, that union with God – and we can’t increase any more than union with our almighty creator. God desires to give all of his children the gift of His love, and this gift was particularly shown in the person of His Son Jesus. Jesus is the light of love coming into a darkened and fearful world, dwelling among us, a reason to be always joyful. That’s what we prepare for every day as Christians. It is this joy in the knowledge that He grows in each of us, just as He did in a physical way in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When we are open and allow His presence to grow in us, although we allow our self interest to diminish, we actually are built up in Him. And there is a tremendous joy in that. It’s not a joy the world understands; but then, the world didn’t understand that the Lord of the Universe would be born in poverty – just as the world today doesn’t understand that Jesus is really and truly present to us in the Eucharist. The question for each of us becomes, then, what part does God call me to play in preparing a way for Christ to enter into the realities of my daily life? In what way am I called to decrease so that He may increase? Not just during this season of Advent, but throughout the entire year?

And as we continue to focus on opening a welcoming heart to receive Jesus, we can ask ourselves, ‘are we almost there?”

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Advent 2nd Sunday (Year B)

Here we are in the second Sunday of Advent, a time of preparation for the great feast of Christmas. Yet it seems as if our secular culture has already moved ‘into’ Christmas season and hasn’t given a thought to Advent being a season in itself. Perhaps we have done the same. In our Gospel from St. Mark, quoting the prophet Isaiah in pointing to St. John the Baptist; a voice cries out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”

We spend this time preparing; and that preparation takes all kinds of forms – shopping and baking and decorating and visiting; or maybe we spend time reflecting on the Christmas story, of that little manger in Bethlehem.

The difficulty in leaping into Bethlehem, though, unprepared, is that we may miss Advent, and the entire point of God coming among us, as one of us- as ‘Emmanuel’. In the secular we think about our shopping carts – in the sacred we think about Bethlehem; and whether we realize it or not, these two points of focus can have something in common.

Often this time of year, those who have the means to shop, do so filling their carts or baskets with all kinds of treats and desserts and ‘junk foods’ to celebrate with – yet, if that’s how we shop, then there is little or no room in the cart for the things we really need; foods that are nutritious, healthy and necessary. In the same way we can consider the Inn that was noted in St. Luke’s gospel narrative; the Inn where there was no room – no room to accept the Holy Family, no room for Mary to give birth to her son, no room for Jesus.

This is not a judgment on the innkeeper or the shopper; it’s more an invitation to reflect on the ‘fullness’ of an inn that was accommodating travelers, or a shopping cart that’s filled with ‘junk’; an invitation to reflect on what ‘preparation’ during Advent really means.

If our hearts are filled with anxiety or anger, with worry and distress; if we need to seek mercy or to show mercy; if we need forgiveness or to forgive; if we seek compassion or are asked to be compassionate, this is the time of year most ‘geared’ towards seeking that disposition in our hearts.

A heart that has no room for justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness or compassion has no room for Christ, just as the Inn at Bethlehem had no room for Him – much the same as an overstuffed shopping cart full of ‘extras’ has no room for what is truly necessary.

Perhaps we can spend a bit of time in this season of Advent, emptying out those shopping carts that are our hearts, that accumulate and gather pain and sorrow, grief and anger, and letting them fill with the things that we need the most; maybe we can open up the Inn of our hearts, asking those more difficult guests like impatience and selfishness, pride and ignorance to leave, so that there will be room for the One whose arrival we claim to be preparing for in the first place; Christ our Lord.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Advent 1st Sunday (Year B)

Happy New Year!  Perhaps it seems a bit early in our secular-oriented culture to offer such a greeting this time of year.  This Sunday, however, we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year in our Church.

While it is a time that we prepare to celebrate the past – the entry of God into our human reality as one of us in the person of Jesus – and it is a time to look to the future – when Christ will return in all His glory – it is also a time to look with eyes of compassion and faith to Jesus who shows Himself to us daily in those around us; the poor and neglected, the broken and forgotten.

It is a time to begin anew our commitment to having Christ at the centre of our lives. It is a chance to annually remind ourselves that we don’t have a caricature of a Saviour who remains in the safe and unchallenging guise of a newborn babe; we have a Saviour who experienced the full range of our emotions, challenges and difficulties by emptying Himself of His Divinity for our sake.

It is a season to prepare once again to welcome Jesus into our hearts and our homes, not simply by our choice of decorations or religious catch-phrases; but by opening our hearts and reaching out our hands to seek and serve Him wherever and whenever we encounter Him.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

4th Sunday of Advent

It is perhaps one of the most common traits of being human, that we want to shape circumstances to work out in our favour.  Sometimes even when it comes to accepting God’s will in our own lives, we have an urge to place limitations or conditions on it – attempting to bend God’s will to ours. We have real difficulty with the word ‘obedience’ as if it means being ‘oppressed’, or being ‘put down’.

But this impression of the word ‘obedience’ is a fairly modern one; it is not the Christian view.  Another word should come to mind when we hear ‘obedience’

That other word is trust.  Trust that the God who has spoken to each of us in our lives wants only the best for us – union with Himself for all eternity – and that obedience to His will is how we open ourselves to this wondrous gift.

As we come towards the end of the season of Advent, we are reminded constantly in the media to get that one last gift – advertisers are in the last days of whipping us into a frenzy of buying and selling as the last remaining days before Christmas slip away.   Consider how many purchase things on the internet – a practice which is extremely common in our society.  Whether it is through some of the better know internet ‘marketplaces’ like E-Bay or Amazon.com, we are faced with purchasing goods from total strangers.  We don’t know the people we are ordering items from. We trust complete strangers in unknown locations with our credit card numbers, personal and financial information; and how do we know we can trust them?  Well, we look at their approval rating on the same web site – an approval rating that again is provided by complete strangers – how do we know we can depend on their ratings of trustworthiness?  And yet we have no problem giving these people access to our credit and personal information.

How is it that we find it so difficult to trust God….a God who has repeatedly intervened in human history to bring us back to Himself….a God who speaks to each of us directly, every day – if only we are willing to hear, and to listen to what He has to say to us.

Unlike the people involved in today’s Gospel, we have the benefit of hindsight, being given an insight into Christ’s birth well after the fact – remember the Gospels were written after Jesus resurrection.  In his particular account, St. Matthew is writing for a mainly Jewish audience; he stresses that even from before His birth, Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies of the coming Messiah in the Old Testament – even quoting from the prophet Isaiah, which we heard in our

first reading ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel ‘- ‘God is with us’  To St. Matthew, understanding and accepting Jesus as the Messiah is what we might call today a ‘no-brainer’.

But look at the circumstances surrounding our Mother Mary and St. Joseph leading up to Jesus’ birth.  St. Joseph is faced with making a decision on a matter that is beyond his understanding, and his practical experience.  His betrothed is pregnant, and he knows he is not the father of this child – the Blessed Virgin has given him, what we would all likely consider an implausible story.

We are told that St. Joseph was a righteous man – he was a good man, trying to do what he thought was ‘the right thing’ to secretly divorce Mary, rather than expose her to public scandal…in fact, given the law handed down from Moses in these circumstances, to publicly repudiate her as being ‘unclean’ and ‘unfaithful’, risked a penalty of having Mary stoned to death, killing her and the baby in her womb, effectively ‘wiping out’ what people would have mistakenly thought at the time was a visible sign of sin in their community.

There would have been a cost to Joseph as well to take Mary as his wife at this stage– if they remained in the same community, then surely people would realize that Mary would been pregnant when Joseph took her into his home.  The implications for Joseph in a first century Jewish town would have been serious – he would have been seen as weak in standing up in defence of the law, in other words, no longer ‘righteous’;  his ethics would come into question, and we cannot underestimate how greatly this would have affected a carpenter- a tradesman- in this setting; his livelihood depended on the good will of those in his community, and religious law and social interaction were completely intertwined.

Look at the magnitude of what hinges on Joseph’s decision.  Although God knows how history will play out, no one else does; salvation of the entire human race could hang in the balance – if Joseph goes with common sense and follows his own will, Mary will be sent away, and will have to raise the child alone in obscurity – that is, of course, unless the rest of the community finds out and Mary is publicly accused and attacked. We can imagine for just a moment all the angels in heaven watching, waiting- perhaps holding their breath, waiting to see what the response of St. Joseph will be.  This is high drama of cosmic proportions.

We are told Joseph was visited in a dream by the angel of the Lord who explained that Mary had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, a child who was to save his people from their sins.  He is told to take Mary into his home; and what is his response? 

Not to discount his dream as only a dream; but to obey God’s directions to him, to take Mary into his home as his wife;  from that moment , Joseph’s life is irrevocably changed – he will have to leave his home, eventually his country, to protect and raise Jesus as His own child…and yet he doesn’t respond with ‘okay God, I will do this for you, if you do this or that for me’ – he doesn’t try to work out a deal with the angel;  while we are not left with his words, we are left with his actions – actions which gave a straightforward ‘Yes’ – obedience to God’s will and setting aside even his personal preferences  – Joseph won’t even get to name this child ; this child’s name has already been chosen by God – Jesus.

When we encounter difficulties, or when we have any decision to make in our lives, we should always pray; ask God what he is calling us to do, and take the time to listen to His direction.  We can enlist the help of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, asking them to pray for us and with us in trying to determine just what it is in our lives that God is asking of us, and ask God to grant us the grace to follow that course in obedience.

At my ordination, when I knelt before my bishop and held my hands out together, the bishop placed his hands around mine and asked ‘do you promise obedience and respect to me and my successors’?  There was no ‘qualification’ in this question – it was a question which required a simple yes or no answer.

I can only speak for myself, but I expect the same is true for all the ordained:

I answered yes, because I trust my bishop to never direct or ask me to do anything contrary to what Christ commanded, to what Christ taught, or what God wills.

I could not answer yes if I had not been convinced of this in my heart…

It is the same when we consider what God asks of us especially during this time of Advent, as the celebration of Christmas draws so close.

Just like St. Joseph, we are each invited to welcome Christ into our own hearts and homes on His terms, not ours. 

God doesn’t give us a list of possible qualifiers: this is not something we can attach conditions to; The direction is quite simple and straightforward – “accept me and welcome me into your life, and your life will be forever changed “—and in obedience; in trust, we have the opportunity to respond “yes Lord, come into our lives, remain in our hearts. We believe you want only the best for us, and in trust we surrender our desires, and freely choose to follow your will.’

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

3rd Sunday of Advent (Year A)

In our celebrations on this third Sunday in Advent, or ‘Gaudete Sunday’ we mark the occasion with rose vestments, or lighting a rose or pink candle on our advent wreaths.  The word ‘Gaudete’ comes from the Latin for ‘Joy’; and although we are in a penitential season, we celebrate with a sense of joy, recognizing that this time of advent, this time of waiting for the arrival of our Lord and Saviour is almost over.

It seems a bit out of place then, that we read from the Gospel of St. Matthew today, what seems to be a less than joyful event.  It is an episode in which John the Baptist, who is imprisoned, sends messengers to Jesus to ask if He is the expected Messiah.  This seems like anything but a joyful setting – John, in prison, sending his own disciples to inquire of Jesus, who John baptized in the Jordan, whether or not He –Jesus – is the one whose coming was foretold, who John has spent his ministry preparing the way for.

Jesus response, it seems on its face, doesn’t sound particularly reassuring.  He doesn’t answer directly – He tells these messengers to go back to John and tell them what they see; the lame walk, the blind have their sight restored, the dead are raised.  Wouldn’t it have been easier if Jesus had just said, “Yes, I am the Messiah. Go and tell John I am the one,”?

Don’t we ask the same question often enough as well?  When we try to discern our own path, or need something , wouldn’t it be easier if Jesus just answered ‘Yes’ and revealed Himself directly to each of us, giving us the answers we want?

If we reflect, though, we see the wisdom not only in Jesus’ approach to the question, but in the answer itself.  It is not only an answer of affirmation.  It’s an answer of hope.

Prior to Jesus, and even shortly after, there was a number of people who claimed to be the Messiah in Palestine.  Each of their movement’s goals were political and worldly in nature, and as each ‘claimant’ was either killed or removed, their followings disappeared as well.  It would have been easy indeed for Jesus to simply answer, ‘Yes, I am the Messiah’ to these visitors, but in a sense it would not have been very convincing for John.

Imagine his disciples returning to him in prison and saying, ‘We asked Jesus if He was the Messiah.  He says he is.”

On the other hand, imagine John’s disciples – people who were close to him and who he trusted – coming back to him and saying, “We went to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah, and we saw the words of the prophets fulfilled – the lame walk, the blind see, the dead are raised.”  These would have been the words of witnesses to events, and this information would have been far more convincing for John. We don’t know how many disciples were sent, but we know it was more than one, and according to Jewish law and custom, truth required the testimony of two or more witnesses.  This action of John’s disciples would mean the stories they were relating to him were true.

Even in prison, this would have been an affirmation for John that his ministry had been fulfilled; that the Messiah had indeed come; and that would have been a message of great hope – even in prison.

And from hope, we get joy.

Jesus may not give us the direct answers we all seek every day, all the time.  But if we take the time to observe – really observe – the world around us, we can find hints and signs of His presence and His movement all around us.  Even in the midst of great tragedies and disasters, we can see deeply moving moments of compassion, caring , support and heroism.  It is these things, these actions all around us, that are the most convincing signs that God lives and moves and acts in and through his children.

Even in a world that sometimes feels so dark, so sad and so troubled, there is that light that remains, as long as we take the time to see it.  However, it does no good to simply observe the working of Christ in our world.

Like John the Baptist’s disciples, we have to report it, to bear witness to it.

That witness allows us to share hope with others;  hope of the coming of Christ among us , living witnesses to His presence among us, and the truth of His love.

And in that hope, is tremendous joy.

Even if sometimes the answer seems indirect.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

2nd Sunday of Advent (Year A)

We continue in our preparations for the great feast of Christmas, busying our selves with getting our houses decorated, buying gifts, organizing parties and menus.  And annually we hear proclaimed at Mass the readings and prayers which remind us that this indeed is a time of preparation, the season of Advent – but often we become so caught up in the preparation for the great feast, that we miss or skip over the period of preparation.

It’s as if we are taking a journey, and jump from the preparation directly to the destination; and if we were able to do that, we might find that when we arrive at our destination, there are some things that we forgot to pack, or some sights and signs that we missed along the way that were crucial to the entire experience

We hear it time and again, year after year; “we prepare during Advent for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas”.  On one level we are preparing to celebrate a period in human history when God directly intervened in human affairs to bring us closer to Him.  On a deeper level though, this season gives us an opportunity to consciously prepare our hearts to welcome Christ into them in a more personal and intimate way; to be ready to meet and receive Him each and every day, at any time.

And it is quite difficult to welcome Him into a space that is crowded with wants and desires, worries and frustrations, fears or anxiety – it is just as difficult for Him to enter a space that is filled with pre-conceived notions of our own ‘righteousness’ or our own ‘worthiness’ as if we are owed His presence within us as another ‘entitlement’.

This Sunday’s particular passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew is loaded with depth and meaning concerning that idea of a crowded heart, and the proper disposition of those who would turn to God, who desire to live a life of conversion.

Conversion, St. Augustine tells us, is a deliberate, intentional, continuous orienting or turning of ourselves towards God – that includes our words, our actions, our thoughts, but mainly our hearts.

True conversion requires true repentance.

To repent is not just simply a matter of feeling a bit of sorrow at having done something wrong or bad.  True repentance is an admission that in our own relationship with God we have fallen short of that closeness that we were all created for.  True repentance is admitting that there are things we have done or attitudes we have that keep us from that deeper union with our God, a God who loved us into existence and who waits to welcome us back into union; in the same way that we wait for the arrival of Christ in our hearts. True repentance is based on a desire to live out the two great commandments – to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

The baptism in this passage administered by St. John was one of repentance (not to be confused with the baptism that Jesus will initiate, a baptism of adoption as a child of God, a new creation, wiping clean original sin)

This repentance was a public admission that a person was not in ‘right relationship’ with God, and desired to turn from their weakness, their broken-ness and turn towards God, to seek His face.  But the external symbolism of the ritual had to be a reflection of the inner reality that the person truly desired to move closer to God, and was prepared to change from within.

And this is where we see our eyes drawn to the point in this episode where the Gospel says some Pharisees and Sadducees, religious leaders, also come forward for baptism; but they seem to come separate from the rest of the people who have come to profess they are ‘sinners’, apart from the people who apparently are conscious of their ‘separation’ from God in their hearts.

St. John the Baptist is very harsh in his remarks to these leaders.

He calls them a ‘brood of vipers’ and goes on further to criticize those who claim their salvation is based simply on being a descendent of Abraham or of the Patriarchs.

It’s not sufficient for someone to say, well, I belong to this group or that group, and based simply on that membership, I’m good; salvation is assured to me – I’m in right relationship because of the people who have gone before me.

This promotes complacency and glorifies mediocrity; God loves us wholeheartedly, and asks that we return that love in kind, not in some mediocre way.

The stories that are handed down to us and the work of scholars seems to indicate that some groups of Pharisees and Sadducees were not really concerned with social justice for the poor and marginalized.  They were only concerned with social justice as it applied to them.  John wasn’t criticizing them for coming for baptism – he was apparently criticizing their lack of concern with justice for all people;  in essence, he was telling them if you want to come forward, come – but give some evidence by your works that you mean to reform your ways.

John takes particular aim at this attitude ‘we have Abraham for our father’.  He tells the all of those listening,” do not presume to say and believe that is enough.”  Feed the hungry, care for the poor and the weak, house the homeless, clothe the naked, uphold the suffering and oppressed; don’t simply come to participate in a ritual for outward appearances and go back to your old ways.

The Messiah is coming.  He will know His own.  And He will know them by their hearts and their actions.  And John speaks these words with a sense of urgency, with passion.

If we mean to enter into true conversion, true repentance, St. John says, then come to the waters.  But don’t do this for show, or to pretend to be righteous; change your life; change your attitude; these words from the Gospel are urgent words, and we should all hear them and read them and share them with great passion.

We all need to look at ourselves to see if we are bearing good fruit.  We cannot be complacent. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo; we need to be continually examining our own lives and relationship with God to see if we are bearing good fruit, and if not, then we need to ask ourselves what it is that preventing us from bearing good fruit.

But we need to be very honest with ourselves – sometimes even as harsh as the Baptist was when we examine our own conscience.   Sometimes we need to identify our own ‘brood of vipers’ within.

The Palestine Viper is a particular snake in the Golan Heights region of Palestine.  It is the most dangerous snake in the Middle East, highly venomous; but it is not that common.  However, this particular viper is often confused with other snakes which are quite harmless, non-poisonous, and only eat insects or rodents.

The secret here is in knowing that in the middle of all of these harmless, even helpful creatures, there is something quite deadly.

There is nothing more dangerous than something very harmful blending in with the harmless, so that its presence is unknown until it is too late.

An attitude of complacency toward God or even rationalizing that just because we call ourselves Christians means we are ‘good to go’ with God can be very harmful; without deeply examining ourselves and our attitudes, to see how close we are , or how distant we are from that right relationship with God.

We need to have a sense of urgency, in that desire to grow closer to God, especially during this Advent season; we need to honestly reflect on our relationship with God, as individuals and as a people.  We need to take time to consider what attitudes we might need to remove, or introduce into our hearts to prepare that place for the coming Messiah.

We can’t skip over this preparation; we need to be ready to meet Christ whenever and wherever He comes to us.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!