Second Sunday of Advent – Year A
[Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15: 4-9; Matthew 3:1-12]
When I was a parish priest, I enjoyed visiting the homes of parishioners. Usually, I would make those visits in one of two ways: either I would call ahead and make an appointment, or I would just show up unannounced at the door. You can probably imagine the difference in reception. If my visit was expected, the door was instantly answered and opened wide in welcome, the house would be immaculate with everything in order, with the tea on the stove ready to serve. On the occasions when I appeared unexpectedly, usually someone would peer out cautiously from behind a curtain, cries of panic would follow, and as the door eventually opened, I would inevitably be strongly encouraged not to look at the mess.
As we entered the season of Advent last Sunday, the texts from Sacred Scripture reminded us that the Lord’s return will be at an unexpected hour, that Jesus will not be calling ahead to make an appointment, as it were. This Sunday, the passage from Saint Matthew’s Gospel focuses upon readiness, and summons us to tidy up the house and have everything in order, ready to welcome the Lord’s return, whenever that might be.
The heart of that message is the command to repent. We hear this from the lips of Saint John the Baptist. As Matthew says of him, John is sent by God to proclaim the message of readiness and call people to prepare a way for the Lord’s coming among them. All that John said and taught revolved around that one word: repent. It means “turn around”, which is to say, turn away from all that is sinful and back toward God and fidelity to his commands. Colloquially, we can say it means getting the house in order – not the physical dwelling in which we live, but our own hearts. They need to be swept clean of sin in order to be ready to welcome Jesus when he comes to us.
Now, when we tidy up the house the results of our labours will be visible. Dishes piled in the sink are now clean and back in the cupboard; clothing that had overflowed the laundry basket is washed, ironed and put away; and toys scattered everywhere are picked up and restored to where they belong. As we stay with the scriptural texts, we learn that repentance, too, has an effect that is visible, and it is this: relationships that were once broken are now healed.
The promise of healed relationships was made long ago by the prophet Isaiah, in strikingly beautiful imagery: “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid”. That ancient vision captures well our present longing, as ruptured relationships continue to plague us. Wars rage between nations, citizens in their own country bemoan social disruption, and families grieve estrangement. This is the “mess” created when our inner lives are disordered by turning away from God. So, the healing of those relationships will happen when we turn back to God. Let’s note carefully that Isaiah’s vision of healed relationships is linked with the coming of the Messiah, whom he calls the “shoot … from the stump of Jesse”, and the turning of all hearts back to him. Well, the Christian proclamation is that Jesus is the promised Messiah. In himself he has healed humanity’s ruptured relationship with God and is therefore the one who reconciles us to one another. So, the call to broken humanity is to turn our hearts to Jesus Christ in sincere repentance. The visible result will be a “tidied up” way of living, one marked no longer by division but harmony, not hatred but peace.
We know that a house, once put in order, will soon fall again into disorder without a change in those habits that keep it perpetually messy. Repentance is like that. The decision to turn back to Jesus Christ must be accompanied by a firm decision to amend my way of living so that my inner life remains properly ordered. Here we see why John the Baptist responds with such vehemence to the Pharisees and Sadducees, who come to him for his baptism of repentance. He knows well that they are there only to “go through the motions”, arrogantly presuming that, since they are “children of Abraham” they have no need to change their attitudes and behaviours. Far more gently, yet no less firmly, Saint Paul encourages us to accept that repentance must be accompanied by a changed way of life, which he describes as living in harmony with one another and welcoming each other. More than children of Abraham, Jesus has made us children of God, yet we must never assume from that beautiful and wondrous truth that we have no need for continual repentance, no need always to be reforming our lives in order to keep our hearts, once cleaned by Baptism, in proper order.
One final point: when we know a visitor is coming, we don’t expect that guest to clean our house. We do that, of course. In our life with Christ, something beautifully different is at work. Disorder within our hearts, our inner mess, results from sin, which only Jesus can forgive. In other words, in order that our hearts be put in order to welcome him at his coming, Jesus himself does the cleaning by the gift of his mercy. This is what happens when we confess our sins in the sacrament of Penance and firmly resolve to change our lives with the help of his grace.
His mercy reaches us, too, in the sacrament of the Eucharist. So, this morning let us bring before the Lord the disorder of our lives, and that of the world, and pray that he restore us all to right order, to a “clean house”, ready and prepared to meet him when he comes.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
December 4th, 2022