Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"


On this Second Sunday of Advent we hear the unvarnished words of the one who, according our Lord, is greatest of the prophets: John the Baptizer:

"In those days 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.' (Matt. 3:1-12)
(Sarcasm alert) Remember, Advent is not a penitential season! (Okay, I feel better). I readily concede that it is not only,  perhaps even not primarily, a penitential season, but I remain puzzled by efforts to rid Advent of its penitential dimension altogether. So, let's not water down the radicality or urgency of the Baptist's message, for which what we heard last week from Paul's Letter to the Romans, namely "our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness (and) put on the armor of light" (v. 11b-12), was but a segue.

As the Holy Father said to Seewald in his response to a question posed to him about the sexual abuse crisis in the Church:
"The concept of penance, which is one of the fundamental elements of the Old Testament message, is something we have increasingly lost. People somehow wanted to say only positive things. The fact that one can change and allow oneself to be change through penance is a positive gift. The early Church viewed it in this way also."

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