Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Advent
You would think that we should today hear something about the great Feast which we shall celebrate in a few days. You would think that we should hear about the announcement by the archangel Gabriel or the Blessed Virgin Mary—perhaps repeating what we heard at Mass last Wednesday and last Friday. Afterall, our Byzantine brothers and sisters are today hearing about the visit of St Gabriel to St Joseph, and the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel. So shouldn’t we also?
Instead, we are blessed to hear another prophecy from Isaiah. We hear not about a virgin, but about a voice. Not about a virgin with child, but about a voice crying out in the wilderness. And we hear not the news about the birth of Emmanuel, but rather the exhortation to prepare the way of the Lord by repentance: which means living against the sins we confess by self-denial, by restraining and suppressing our pride, anger, judginess, anxieties, and other disordered passions.
We hear such a stern exhortation. We hear a voice that seems to dampen our mood. Yet, we must remember why the voice cries out, why the prophet prophesies, why the Forerunner runs before the Christ, urging us to set our hearts and minds straight.
The voice cries out not to scold but to refocus our soul, to reset our heart’s desire—all so that we might take comfort. For what does the prophet Isaiah say?
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received [from] the LORD’s hand double [forgiveness] for all her sins.
Notice how we receive this double forgiveness, this overabundant mercy, this mercy without boundaries. It comes not from our hands but from the Lord’s hand. It comes not as the result of what we’ve accomplished, but as a gift from the Lord.
But even though we don’t deserve what Our Lord gives, He determines that we are worthy simply because He created us, and knows that we are too weak to do what we must. He knows our nature and what we are made of. So, by His grace, we can attain His double forgiveness, appropriate it, and embrace it when we have prepared ourselves properly to receive, without conditions, what He so graciously gives.
And how do we prepare? It is a matter of the heart more than following rules or certain steps. We prepare by exercising humility. By denying our comforts for the good of others. But most importantly, we exercise humility when we trust the Lord’s Word more than the confounding noise in our head; when we let His will run our way; when we don’t let our fears and anxieties get the better of us, but instead cast all of these cares upon the Lord, confident that He truly cares for us. Those are ‘fruits worthy of repentance.’
The Holy Mother of God and St John Baptist are prime examples of this true humility. They did not walk around defeated, or looking for sympathy, or meekly giving in to every bully. That’s not humility. Instead, the humility they lived was a natural outgrowth of their faith that God’s will actually, and really, and truly is done. Always. No matter the conditions or restrictions by others. And so they show us what ‘fruits worthy of repentance’ look like.
And so the voice of the One cries out. He urges to ready ourselves to receive Our Lord to the fullest by setting aside all earthly desires, by quitting all anxieties about the cares of this life, and by making no excuses or room for what we think matters most.
The voice cries out, prodding us to train our flesh with fasting, and our hearts by giving, and our minds by prayer. The voice cries out, pleading with us to desire not the presents that break, or the gifts that offer fleeting happiness; but to desire this Son whom the blessed Virgin delivers; this Gift from the Father; and this Present whom the Spirit generously wishes to bestow on all flesh.
Yet how can we welcome Him aright, how can we embrace Him with fulsome joy, how can we truly celebrate His Nativity—unless our hearts have been prepared by Private Absolution. For what else fills the valleys we have pock-marked with our meanness and pettiness? What else levels the mountains and hills of our stubborn pride? What else straightens our crooked addictions and desires? What else makes plain the rough ways of our sins?
Is it not the Sacrament of Penance? Is it not the Lord’s doubling absolution which gently yet firmly meets and heals the wrong-doing we confess? And is it not hearing the Lord speak His comfort after we have said how we have offended Him, His Mother, His angels, His saints, and all in His church?
Let us then hasten to do what St John the Baptizer begs, entreats, and pleads with us to do. His voice cries out to the barren wilderness in our hearts. His voice cries out offering, presenting, and promising the dew and moisture of the Spirit who will bring new life and sturdy growth in our wilderness. His voice cries out, beckoning us to be truly and rightly prepared for this coming Feast. His voice cries out, inviting us to ignore him no more, but to lay aside all earthly care so that we might, with true and earnest hearts, take up the salvation that the Lord’s priests place in our ears and then on our tongues.
This plea by the holy Forerunner to prepare ourselves by seeking God’s absolution as we confess our sins—this plea is not a plea simply for those who feel guilty or know they did something bad. It is a plea for all. For those who are poor as well as those who are well-off; those who are strong in the faith as well as those who are weak; those who are at peace as well as those who are anxious; those who have kept the fast as well as those who have not; those who have little to confess as well as those who have much. I invite you, with me, to heed this voice that speaks to our wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. For the Lord is at hand, and the Lord’s Feast comes soon, and the Lord’s Day is nigh.
May we, by the prayers of St John the Baptizer, not be afraid to prepare, by the Sacrament of Penance, the way which is our blessed Lord Jesus Christ; to whom with His Father, in the unity of the all-Holy and life-giving Spirit, belongs all glory, honor and worship, world without end.
20 December 2020