Second Sunday of Advent
Psalm 71: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
Matthew 3: 1-12
The Comfort of the Scriptures
Today’s Second Reading from the Letter to the Romans is, every year in the classic Roman Rite, the Epistle of the Second Sunday of Advent. As such, it also recurs in the classic Divine Office as the Chapter at Vespers, Lauds, Tierce, Sext, and None. Last evening when I stood in my little domestic oratory to chant First Vespers of the Second Sunday of Advent, I was very nearly swept off my feet by the beauty and power of the Chapter:
Brethren, whatsoever things were written were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope (Rom 14:4).
Read the Encyclical
“That we might have hope.” Immediately my mind went to the Encyclical Letter of our Holy Father, Spe Salvi. I hope that by now you have all read the Encyclical at least once. If not, what in the world are you waiting for? You have received a letter from your Father, from the Father of all Christ’s faithful? When one receives a letter from one’s father, one doesn’t leave it in a drawer or on a shelf. One opens the envelope with a trembling hand and rapid heartbeat. One cannot wait to read what Papa has written. It is inconceivable that the children of the Church should receive the Holy Father’s Encyclical Letter with indifference, that one should content oneself with a glance at the headlines or with a superficial summary written, more often than not, from a highly subjective perspective.
The Flower of the Root of Jesse
Back to the Second Reading. I see it as the centerpiece of an Advent triptych. In the first panel we contemplate the magnificent artistry of the Prophet Isaiah. I say, “contemplate,” and not, “hear,” because Isaiah presents us with images, with a vibrant tableau of the Kingdom of God restored and renewed in Christ Jesus. Jesus is the flower rising up from the root of Jesse. Look at Him as John the Baptist saw Him at His Baptism in the Jordan: the love of the Father shines on His Holy Face, the Holy Spirit hovers over His noble head in the form of a snow white dove. A sevenfold anointing rests upon Him, drenching His Head and His entire Body in wisdom and in understanding, in counsel, and in fortitude, in knowledge, and godliness, and fear of the Lord.
Christ: King, Judge, and Saviour
Enriched with this sevenfold anointing, Jesus is King, ruling over a new order of things. “He shall not judge according to the sight of His eyes, nor reprove according to the hearing of His ears” (Is 11:3). How then shall He judge? “He shall judge the poor with justice, and shall reprove with equity the meek of the earth” (Is 11:4). Pope Benedict XVI speaks to us of Christ the Judge in Spe Salvi:
From the earliest times, the prospect of the Judgment has influenced Christians in their daily living as a criterion by which to order their present life, as a summons to their conscience, and at the same time as hope in God’s justice. Faith in Christ has never looked merely backwards or merely upwards, but always also forwards to the hour of justice that the Lord repeatedly proclaimed. This looking ahead has given Christianity its importance for the present moment. In the arrangement of Christian sacred buildings, which were intended to make visible the historic and cosmic breadth of faith in Christ, it became customary to depict the Lord returning as a king—the symbol of hope—at the east end; while the west wall normally portrayed the Last Judgment as a symbol of our responsibility for our lives—a scene which followed and accompanied the faithful as they went out to resume their daily routine.
The Holy Father invites us to contemplate Our Lord Jesus Christ as both Judge and Saviour. Listen to the Pope:
The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.
John the Baptist
Let us go now to the third panel of the triptych. We see there another portrait, that of John the Baptist. He is gorgeously wild. How many artists drew the inspiration for their portraits of the Holy Forerunner from today’s Gospel! John’s preaching announces the judgment of Christ and prepares us for it. “Do penance,” he says, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2). What exactly does John the Baptist mean by “do penance”? Other translations render his imperative as “repent.” In fact, he is saying, “Turn your life around. Make changes in the way you are living. You who are complacent and comfortable, you who think that everything in your life is irreproachable and in order, look again! If you think you are not in need of conversion, of penance, of repentance, of making changes, you are deluded!” “Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance” (Mt 3:8).
John’s message is strong. It is not pious entertainment. He does not tuck us in with religious feather puffs. His burning eyes pierce all our defenses. There is no psychological armour that can resist him because John, like Jesus his Lord, his Saviour, his Friend, is all ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Fruit Worthy of Penance
His message already prophesies the words of Jesus in the Cenacle on the night before His Passion. John says, “Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance. . . . Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire” (Mt 3:8, 10). And Our Lord says, “Every branch in me, that beareth not fruit, he [the Father] will take away: and every one that beareth fruit, he will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit. . . . If any one abide not in me, he shall be cast forth as a branch, and shall wither, and they shall gather him up, and cast him into the fire, and he burneth” (Jn 15:2, 6).
That We Might Have Hope
Judgment and penance are sobering motifs. They are, nonetheless, absolutely integral to the Gospel, and one who seeks to sidestep them, steps outside the pure light of Truth. The pure light of Truth also shines in the central panel of the triptych. There it consoles us and offers us hope, even in the face of judgment and of the call to repentance. Perhaps that is why the classic Roman Rite repeats Saint Paul’s message at every Hour of the Divine Office. Assimilation by dint of repetition.
For what things soever were written, were written for our learning: that through patience and the comfort of the scriptures, we might have hope. Now the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of one mind one towards another, according to Jesus Christ (Rom 15:4-5).
Integral to repentance is a serious personal commitment to lectio divina. Daily. Consistently. No excuses. What is the purpose of lectio divina? Saint Paul tells us: for our learning. Learning what? Learning the Face of Christ and the secrets of His Sacred Heart! “That through patience and the comfort of the scriptures, we might have hope” (Rom 15:4). The hope that is the fruit of a patient seeking of the Face of Christ in the Scriptures is what makes it possible to persevere in life together, imitating the heart of the “God of patience and comfort” (Rom 3:4).
That You May Glorify God
This central panel of the triptych has a touch of gold that illumines everything else. I refer to verse 6: “That with one mind, and with one mouth, you may glorify God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6). This is the finality of the Christian life: the praise of the glory of God. For this does the Lord Jesus stand in our midst as Saviour and as Judge; for this does He communicate to us the sevenfold anointing of the Holy Spirit’s Gifts; for this does Saint John the Forerunner call us to reform our lives: that we may enter with all our hearts into “the mercy of peace and the sacrifice of praise” that is the foretaste of the liturgy of heaven offered by Christ the Eternal High Priest in the sanctuary beyond the veil. Praise, pure praise of the Father’ glory.