01 December 2016

'Prepare the way of the Lord . . .' Sunday Reflections, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A

St John the Baptist, El Greco, c.1600 [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.”’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,  and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Responsorial Psalm (NAB Lectionary, Philippines, USA)

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near is the stark message of St John the Baptist. He says of his ministry, I baptize you with water for repentance. The response to the Responsorial Psalm is Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.

Repentance, justice and peace go together - with God's mercy. Pope Francis has spoken many times about that. In that context he has also reminded us, especially priests, of the importance of the sacrament of confession/penance/reconciliation.

Jesus speaks to us through his Church this Sunday reminding us of the importance of repenting in order to welcome him into our lives. In Advent we prepare to celebrate his birth and also for his Second coming, whenever that will be. And we also prepare for his daily coming into our lives.

We frequently fail Jesus by our sins. But he doesn't leave us in despair. He doesn't turn his back on us.

In his Wednesday General Audience on 20 November 2013 Pope Francis spoke about the remission of sins. As he often does, he used three points. The first was that the principal agent in the forgiveness of sins is the Holy Spirit. I'll print the rest of his talk and highlight parts of it. I'll also add some (comments).

And we come to the second element: Jesus gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins. It is a little difficult to understand how a man can forgive sins, but Jesus gives this power. The Church is the depository of the power of the keys, of opening or closing to forgivenessGod forgives every man in his sovereign mercy, but he himself willed that those who belong to Christ and to the Church receive forgiveness by means of the ministers of the community(This means that the sacrament of confession is an explicit expression of God's will and that God forgives us through the ministry of the priest.) Through the apostolic ministry the mercy of God reaches me, my faults are forgiven and joy is bestowed on me. (God's mercy and the joy that comes from this, two realities that Pope Francis has spoken about again and again.) In this way Jesus calls us to live out reconciliation in the ecclesial, the community, dimension as well. And this is very beautiful. The Church, who is holy and at the same time in need of penitence, accompanies us on the journey of conversion throughout our life. The Church is not mistress of the power of the keys, but a servant of the ministry of mercy and rejoices every time she can offer this divine gift.

Perhaps many do not understand the ecclesial dimension of forgiveness, because individualism, subjectivism, always dominates, and even we Christians are affected by this. Certainly, God forgives every penitent sinner, personally, but the Christian is tied to Christ, and Christ is united to the Church. For us Christians there is a further gift, there is also a further duty: to pass humbly through the ecclesial community. (Through baptism we are related to Jesus Christ and to one another through the Church. It can never be a matter simply of 'Jesus and I', though he calls each of us into an intimate relationship with him, but never apart from his and our relationship with others.) We have to appreciate it; it is a gift, a cure, a protection as well as the assurance that God has forgiven me. I go to my brother priest and I say: 'Father, I did this...'. And he responds: 'But I forgive you; God forgives you'. At that moment, I am sure that God has forgiven me! 

And this is beautiful, this is having the surety that God forgives us always, he never tires of forgiving usAnd we must never tire of going to ask for forgiveness. You may feel ashamed to tell your sins, but as our mothers and our grandmothers used to say, it is better to be red once than yellow a thousand times. We blush once but then our sins are forgiven and we go forward.

Confession, Giuseppe Maria Crespi, 1712 [Web Gallery of Art]

Lastly, a final point: the priest is the instrument for the forgiveness of sinsGod’s forgiveness is given to us in the Church, it is transmitted to us by means of the ministry of our brother, the priest; and he too is a man, who, like us in need of mercy, truly becomes the instrument of mercy, bestowing on us the boundless love of God the Father. Priests and bishops too have to go to confession: we are all sinners. Even the Pope confesses every 15 days, because the Pope is also a sinner(I often encourage people to go to confession and provide opportunities for them to do so. But it seems that most don't see any need for confession. But on one occasion here in the Philippines when I was asked to celebrate Mass at the end of a recollection day for students in a Catholic girls' high school I made myself available for confession. It became very clear that this was what the girls wanted. We ended up cancelling the Mass so that all could go to confession and having it on another day in the school.) And the confessor hears what I tell him, he counsels me and forgives me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness. Sometimes you hear someone claiming to confess directly to God... Yes, as I said before, God is always listening, but in the Sacrament of Reconciliation he sends a brother to bestow his pardon, the certainty of forgiveness, in the name of the Church. (God sends a brother to assure of us his forgiveness. This is another expression of the reality expressed so beautifully at the beginning of St John's Gospel, 1:14, words that we use when we pray the Angelus: And the Word became flesh and lived among us.)

Pope Francis hearing the confessions of young adults

Pope Francis goes to confession

The service that the priest assumes a ministry, on behalf of God, to forgive sins is very delicate and requires that his heart be at peace, that the priest have peace in his heart; that he not mistreat the faithful, but that he be gentle, benevolent and merciful; that he know how to plant hope in hearts and, above all, that he be aware that the brother or sister who approaches the Sacrament of Reconciliation seeking forgiveness does so just as many people approached Jesus to be healedThe priest who is not of this disposition of mind had better not administer this sacrament until he has addressed it. The penitent faithful have the right, all faithful have the right, to find in priests servants of the forgiveness of God(While Pope Francis doesn't call priests a 'brood of vipers', as St John the Baptist calls some of the Sadducees and Pharisees in today's gospel, he implies that those who are not 'gentle, benevolent and merciful' in the confessional are such.)

Dear brothers, as members of the Church are we conscious of the beauty of this gift that God himself offers us? Do we feel the joy of this cure, of this motherly attention that the Church has for us? Do we know how to appreciate it with simplicity and diligence? Let us not forget that God never tires of forgiving us; through the ministry of priests he holds us close in a new embrace and regenerates us and allows us to rise again and resume the journey. For this is our life: to rise again continuously and to resume our journey.

[This is the form of absolution given by the priest. The highlighted words are essential for the validity of the sacrament.
God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and the resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

This extract from Handel's Messiah includes part of the quotation from the Prophet Isaiah used by St Matthew when he tells us that it refers to St John the Baptist. Handel uses the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, slightly adapting it.

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 . . .

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill [shall be] made low:
and the crooked [shall be made] straight,
and the rough places plain (Isaiah 40:2-4).

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