Sunday, December 4, 2011

Repentance for the forgiveness of sins

Between having no internet connection at home, due to the winds that swept through our town late last week, and working to finish my thesis, I missed posting yesterday. It was good, however, to have an enforced absence from the internet for a day or two. However, as with the Friday traditio, it is customary for me to post something on the Lord's Day.

Today's readings, especially our Gospel, which consists of the first eight verses of St. Mark's Gospel and tell us about the ministry of St. John the Baptist, whose importance in the Western Church has been somewhat obscured over time. Hearing about the Baptist's call to repent on the Second Sunday of Advent is a carry-over from the old liturgical calendar, when much more emphasis was placed on the penitential aspect of Advent. So, in keeping with single-hearted simplicity of the Baptist, my reflection today needs to be simple and to the point.

"John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). What was the response to his challenging preaching, calling out the double-heartedness even among the pious? "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" (Mark 1:5). Baptism is, after all, our new birth into eternal life, which, begins as soon as we emerge, not something delayed until after we die and are resurrected.

I think this highlighted well by our second reading, which comes from the third chapter of 2 Peter: "The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard 'delay,' but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). What is it that shows our need to repent, that is, to change, to be converted? The fact that are not only "waiting for," but "hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:12-13). "Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace" (2 Peter 3:14).

What is it we must repent of, which is simply a way of asking, "What needs to change in me?" As Elder Amilianos observed: "You can’t seek Christ and at the same time be seeking something else. It doesn’t work that way, even if what you’re seeking is something holy. We understand to the degree that we seek, to the extent we comprehend, as much as we make room for. That’s what we need to learn: the more we open our heart, the more we’ll receive God."

I urge one and all to respond not only to the call of the Baptist, but the call of our Lord himself, who, later in the same chapter of St. Mark's Gospel, after being baptized and having His identity confirmed, emerging from the desert, says, "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Jesus is the kingdom in person, what in Greek is referred to as autobasileia. It is easy to do so by availing ourselves during this season designed to aid us in our quest for holiness by participating in any number of Advent Penance Services, or, as we do at the Cathedral parish I serve, simply going to confession, offered as it is more regularly just before the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

In light of a conversation sparked by my homily for the last Sunday in October, it bears noting the St. John the Baptist is the patron of monks, who live celibate lives for the sake of God's kingdom. Indeed, celibacy and virginity remain irreplaceable for the Church's witness in and for the world, pointing us to the fulfillment of God's kingdom among us. But, like fasting and other demanding disciplines, including prayer, we fail to see this and grow in lax in certain ways. Come Lord Jesus!

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