Second Sunday of Advent
In the orations of this season of Advent, there is a word that the Church repeats often and which cannot fail to draw the attention of anyone who reads them attentively. The orations of the first, second and fourth Sundays as well as that of the Ember Friday all begin with the Latin word Excita, which has given our English word excite. For the ancients excitare meant to make to go out, to make to arise, to arouse, to stir up. When we say we are excited, what we mean etymologically is that we have been aroused by some thought or event that, far from leaving us indifferent, makes us look forward with anticipation, with passion, with emotion. In Holy Scripture, the word is found in the great psalm of Advent, Psalm 79 in which we ask the Lord to stir up His power and come. In other words, we ask the Lord to not remain indifferent to us, but to let loose the passionate love He has for us, to come and save us His children, the sheep of His flock.
Today’s oration, however, unlike the other ones beginning with the same word, does not ask God to arouse Himself; it asks Him to arouse us, and more specifically, to stir up our hearts, and this for a specific purpose: to prepare the way for the coming of His Son. What we are asking for here then is an increase in what we call actual grace. Last week we reflected upon sanctifying grace, that indwelling of God in the soul which has been forgiven any serious sins and by which that soul enjoys familiarity with God. Here we are talking about the grace of God inasmuch as it is given to us in order to lead us to that sanctifying grace or to achieve greater things for Him. Actual grace is given to us in the various moments of our life, helping us to avoid sin, to meet daily challenges and to practice virtue. We ask for this grace because it is not something we have a right to; it is the merciful love of God which offers His help to those who ask for it and who prove themselves worthy of it. Very often, God gives an initial grace to pray; if we take that grace and do pray, further graces are given. If we do not, we will not be able to achieve God’s plan in our lives. We must be ever wary of the grace of God that comes, passes us by, and does not return because by our own fault we failed to see that it was God paying us a visit.
How does God’s actual grace reach us? Through what intermediaries? It can come to us through His revealed word in Holy Scripture, or through the advice of a holy person, or through an event that marks us and leads us to prayer and hopefully a change of life. What we see often in Holy Scripture is that God visits souls through His prophets. During this time of Advent, the Church places before our eyes the greatest of the prophets, he who according to Our Lord Himself was more than a prophet, St John the Baptist. Each Sunday now we will be challenged by this man who, 2,000 years after the events still has the extraordinary talent of jolting us out of our self-complacency.
Today’s Gospel makes reference to the fact that John heard about Jesus while he was in chains, that is to say, in prison. John, the greatest of all the prophets, the greatest of all men ever born of woman, was in prison. How did he get there? How did this happen? What crime did he commit? It was no crime but his downfall was that he played no favourites. He had been sent to prepare the way for Jesus, the Son of God, and the most fundamental aspect of preparing for Jesus is to get people to leave their sinful ways. John came into the desert of Judea, preaching a baptism of repentance, and all the people were going out to him in droves. They acknowledged their sins and were baptised by him in the River Jordan. But John was not sent only for the poor people who were longing for the Messiah. He, like Jesus after him, was sent for all, and that included the leaders, both religious and civil. He did not hesitate to reprimand King Herod for the public scandal he had given by taking his brother’s wife and living in adultery with her. This of course displeased Herod, but even more so Herodias, his adulterous consort. Imagine, this worthless preacher who lives in the desert on locusts and wild honey, whose only garment is the rough skin of a camel, reproaches us for doing what we please, we the king and queen who hold the strings of power! That will not be. He must cease. And so, John was thrown in to prison, from which he will not go out except to his eternal reward by beheading.
How did John preach? St Luke gives us a sample: Ye offspring of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance: and do not begin to say, We have Abraham for our father. For I say unto you that God is able of these stones, to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire (Lk 3:7-9).
What would John the Baptist be saying to today’s leaders, both in church and state? What strong words would he have for them? He would probably need quite a bit of time to go through the list, but one thing we can be sure of, and it concerns every country in the world, is that he would have no rest in reproaching them for their godlessness. The great sin of our present day leaders is to live and act and decree as if there are no God, or as if the decision of the majority were equivalent to the voice of God. It is not. God’s commandments do not change; they do not bend to majority rule; they remain forever. Their violation means death, no matter how many people think the contrary. Today John the Baptist would be the undaunted champion of the eternal truth that a nation that stands with and under God is a nation that prospers and lasts, just as the nation that pretends it can do without Him, or worse, that thinks it an use or manipulate His law, is doomed to devastation.
No one likes being told they need to change their ways. Conversion is always an effort, especially when a soul is entrenched in sin like Herod was. But the shepherd that truly loves the sheep knows that words which may seem hard are in reality, words that heal, much life the surgeon’s knife that must needs cut open the flesh in order to remove the cancer and bring healing. The stirring up of the heart, the challenge to leave sin behind and embark upon a new life of fidelity to God and love of neighbour, is then an essential part of conversion. The witness, that is to say, the one who is sent by Christ, must have the courage to challenge, to break through the ice of sin which keeps the heart from opening up to the warm breeze of the Holy Spirit who pours forth the grace of God.
John was that great witness. In the words of John Paul II: “At the dawn of the New Testament, John the Baptist, unable to refrain from speaking of the law of the Lord and rejecting any compromise with evil, gave his life in witness to truth and justice, and thus also became the forerunner of the Messiah in the way he died (cf. Mk 6:17-29). ‘The one who came to bear witness to the light and who deserved to be called by that same light, which is Christ, a burning and shining lamp, was cast into the darkness of prison… The one to whom it was granted to baptise the Redeemer of the world was thus baptised in his own blood’ (St Bede the Venerable)’’ (Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, no. 91).
Alongside the Baptist, the liturgy of Advent also present us with another, very different figure, that of the Virgin Mother who awaits with love the birth of her Divine Son. Our Lady, as any good mother, brings her feminine traits into our spiritual life. She softens the asperity of the prophet’s remonstrances, not to diminish their effect, but to give the courage to accept them. As St Louis de Montfort says so well, she does not take the cross away, but she makes it sweet. As a good mother, she adds grace that helps us swallow the pill, so that we can heal, be made whole, and set out on a new path, a path of hope.
Mary Immaculate is the Mother of Hope, that hope which is the theological virtue by which we are certain of the eternal life that God has promised to those who are purified of their sins in the Blood of Christ. That hope is referred to no less than four times in today’s epistle, for Advent is indeed the season of hope. In the midst of darkness, a light begins to shine. If we open our eyes, it will enlighten us, it will show us what we need to repent of, it will point us in the direction that is God’s.
God alone can give hope to our world, and He does so precisely by orienting our gaze beyond this world. Let’s never forget that the true Christian does much more than work for a better world. The Christian knows there is another world, and that by aiming at that other world, the true world, the eternal world of God and His saints, by the very fact he will be working to make this world a better place, a place that God visits with His peace and in which we rejoice with a heart made perfect by His grace.
Once we have grasped this fundamental truth, we can then walk, march, run to the holy mountain of God’s eternal home, as we sang in the alleluia verse: I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord.