+ 2nd Sunday of Advent
Today's first reading comes from the prophet Isaiah. In fact, all the Old Testament readings in Advent come from Isaiah. He along with John the Baptist are the voices of Advent. Today's reading contains perhaps the most colorful and famous passage found in all of the prophetic writings. It is the story of the "peaceable kingdom" where
the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid...
Now we usually think of the prophets as foretelling the future, and it is true that Isaiah presents us with a picture of a new world to come. However, the special talent of the Old Testament prophets was their ability to describe with brutal accuracy the wrongs of their own day.
If we listen carefully, we can see that Isaiah is contrasting the rule of the future King with the actual state of things in his own time. He complains that people, especially those in authority, judge things solely by appearances and not by principle or justice. They make up their minds by hearsay. Neither the poor not the land's afflicted receive justice or mercy. The ruthless and the wicked prevail. If the future King will rule with justice and faithfulness, it is clear that the present rulers do just the opposite.
As a critic of his own times, Isaiah gives us an introduction to the great New Testament prophet, John the Baptist. In today's gospel, St. Matthew tells us that Isaiah's famous lines refer to John.
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Like Isaiah, John is a critic of the leaders of his own time. Although people were coming from all over to be baptized in the Jordan, John lashes out at the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the leaders of the Jews, for their hypocrisy. Archaeologists tell us how important ritual bathing or baptism was to the Jews at the time of Christ. The frequent washings were not just to cleanse the body, they were also meant to purify the soul.
When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to John's baptism, he calls them a "brood of vipers" because they have no true repentance for the wrongs they have done. They think that it's enough to go through the ritual washing of the body without a thought to a subsequent change of their behavior. He tells them that their status as leaders of the community and descendants of Abraham means nothing unless they "produce good fruit as evidence of ... repentance."
What is good fruit? We can go back to Isaiah's list. We should not judge others merely by appearances. We should avoid deciding merely by hearsay. We should treat those less fortunate than ourselves with fairness and compassion, and not take advantage of them because of their circumstances. We should avoid ruthless and wicked behavior. Is our society any different than Isaiah's?
When John speaks of repentance, he is talking about looking over our lives and taking stock of who we are and where we are going. Advent is a perfect time for us to do so. It is the beginning of a new year so to speak. For centuries the Church has advised us to examine our conscience. In particular, such a review might examine a dominant fault and work on ways to correct it, or it might consider a particular strength or virtue and consider ways to increase it.
Even though the phrase may sound strange to us today, the idea is not outmoded. At the end of each year business people are advised to look back on the past year and consider what worked and what didn't work. They spend hours examining their strengths and weaknesses. For the upcoming year they are urged to prepare a business plan where they will work on developing their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses.
Athletes do the same thing. Every week coaches spend hours examining game films to see what they did right and what they did wrong. Whole practices are devoted to making the necessary corrections and incorporating them into next weeks game plan. Why do we spend so much time preparing for games but so little time preparing for the game of life?
When it comes to the most important things in our own lives we fail to examine our conscience? As the old saying goes, people don't plan to fail, they fail to plan. What did we do wrong last year? How did we hurt ourselves and our loved ones? Can we begin now to rid ourselves of bad or destructive habits?
On the positive side what strengths or virtues do we possess? What can we do to build spiritual muscle memory so that good behavior becomes easy and natural to us? The word virtue merely means a good habit, while a vice is a bad habit. Now is the time to kick the bad habits and concentrate on the good. In today's reading from St. Paul's letter to the Romans he speaks of the quality of endurance. We are in this life for the long haul and must be prepared to go the distance.
The biggest criticism against Christians today is that we are no different than anyone else. Rather than being a light to the nations, the darkness in our society seems to be overwhelming us. We don't have to go about wearing our religion on our sleeve but in our homes, our schools, and in our businesses we should be producing good fruit. We don't need laws and judges to bring Christ back into Christmas. All we need is for Christians to act like Christians.
Reading 1. Isaiah 11: 1-10
Reading II. Romans 15: 4-9
Gospel. Matthew 3: 1-12 (John the Baptist appeared).