John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair
and had a leather belt around his waist.
His food was locusts and wild honey.
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea,
and the whole region around the Jordan
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
He will clear his threshing floor
and gather his wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Well, John the Baptist certainly has a happy, hopeful message for the Second Sunday of Advent!
Seriously, why would the Church choose this passage from the Gospel According to Matthew as the reading for the Second Sunday of Advent? John’s message is one of repentance and warning, and he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers! C’mon, John, it’s Christmas! Get with the program. This is the happy, good-feeling time of year.
John has little patience for good-feeling people. He knows what time it is. It is the time of the Messiah. That means it is time to get our lives straight. Repentance is a good thing. It means to turn from those things that separate us from God and get on the right path. It also calls us out of our complacency, our spiritual ruts, our just getting by and counting on our doing only the minimum to satisfy our Christian duty.
The Church celebrates liturgical seasons for many reasons. One reason, though, is to shake us out of our complacency. It is to jog our minds and remind us that we can’t simply go along unthinkingly in our Christian lives, like robots doing things out of habit rather than conviction. Go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. Put a bit in the collection basket. Nod when others ask for our prayers. Maybe even catch a Knights of Columbus breakfast or two, or the kid’s Christmas concert. That should do it. That should be enough.
This is exactly what John warns the Pharisees and Sadducees about. They rely on their identities as children of Abraham. But that is not enough! Too many Catholics rely on their having been baptized and on doing the minimum to get by in their spiritual lives. John challenges us to do more, and the Church does, too, during Advent and Christmas.
What is the challenge? To become holy. Yes, we are already holy because Christ has declared us so. We are holy ones called to holiness; saints called to sanctity. How do we become holy? Love. Holiness is essentially this: every day learning how to love a little better. Our daily efforts will be little, but they will add up. Acts of sacrifice, kindness, putting the other first, holy thoughts and prayers. These are little things, but they will add up. God can make an ocean of grace from a teardrop of penance.
The whole purpose of Advent is to prepare for the coming of the Lord, both His coming at Bethlehem and His second coming on the clouds. Learning to love a little better every day is a proper way to prepare for both.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.