We have two messages in today’s readings. The first message is that salvation is coming to all of us—Jews and Gentiles alike—in the form of a savior, the Messiah or Christ. The second message is that we need to prepare his way through repentance.
When we talk about the Gospel message, we’re talking about a new answer, a new solution to the problem of sin. The Israelites had been given an answer: the Law of Moses. By fulfilling the Law of Moses, Israel was to find its way to the Promised Land and to salvation. But in their journey, in their walk with Moses, they seemed to get further and further away from the purpose of the law and from God, even as they drew nearer to the lands of Canaan promised to Abraham. Every fall, every bad decision they made, led them further from God’s plan. You see, that is how sin progresses. It takes us further and further from what we know God wants. It might start with a little failing, and that weakens us. But with each small failing, we get closer to a big one, and with each big failing, we turn away more and more from God.
Where Israel sinned most was when they imitated their neighbors, the pagans or Gentiles. That’s sort of like how we forget what the Church teaches us and instead follow the whims of our contemporary culture. God’s commandments to Israel were directed at breaking this bad habit of imitating the Gentiles so that they could be an example to the whole world. Yet Israel limped along with the burden of the Mosaic Law, unable to keep it, and continually falling back into their old sinful habits.
But the Law is not the totality of God’s plan, and God’s plan includes both Jews and Gentiles.
We hear that word “Gentile” in both the reading from Isaiah and the reading from Romans. “The Gentiles” simply means “the nations”—essentially anyone who is not a Jew. Isaiah prophesies a shoot from the stump of Jessie, a king from the line of David, who will bring justice and peace to all, including the Gentiles. Paul talks of Christ’s coming as a servant. The Greek word Christ means the same thing as the Hebrew word Messiah, and both relate to Jesus as king. Christ came to confirm God’s promise to the Jews but also so that Gentiles would praise Him for His mercy.
So, to put it plainly and simply, God wants to save us all: Jew and Greek; slave and free; man, woman, and child. But we need to cooperate, and we cooperate by repenting, by turning away from sin, and by turning toward God.
In the Gospel reading from Matthew, John the Baptist exhorts everyone to repentance. The Jews knew about repentance because it was part of their culture, but the idea that you could repent and be cleansed of sin was a new one for the Greeks. They didn’t have the same concepts of repentance and atonement that Jews did. This is why John came down so hard on the Sadducees and Pharisees—the educated elite of their time They knew what was required for repentance and forgiveness, but they didn’t do it, clinging to the external acts without truly changing in their hearts. And John also tells the pagans that they too can prepare for the Messiah’s arrival by repenting of their sins and preparing the way.
And that message brings us to the point of Advent.
Last week, Fr. Jerome talked about Advent as a penitential season. It’s a detail we seem to have forgotten. We need to remember to do the same penitential acts as part of our Advent preparation that we do for Lent: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—doing acts of charity.
This parish is pretty good about the almsgiving. You all have a very generous spirit. Fasting, well, we could probably all do better on that part, especially when the temptations of early Christmas celebrations are all around us. The reason we fast, pray, and give to charity is to show the fruits of repentance—the results of our turning away from sin and back to God. Advent gives us a chance to follow John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight His paths. To that end, Christ, through the Church, has given us a tremendous gift, the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
This sacrament is truly one of the most beautiful gifts we have as Catholics, but it seems that few of us take advantage of it. I know that I probably only went to confession a handful of times when I was a child, and it so often seemed an occasion for guilt. But that’s not what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is about. Back then we only used to call it “confession,” but the Church now calls it “reconciliation.” Why? Because the point of the sacrament is not to draw a confession out of us and condemn us. It is to heal the wounds or rifts between us and our neighbor and between us and God—to reconcile us to them. It is to draw us closer to God so that his grace can work on us and heal us.
I left the Church when I was in my late teens and was absent for about 20 years. When I returned, I had the formidable obligation to seek reconciliation—to confess 20 years of sin to a priest. You can bet that I was nervous when I went to face him, and you can bet that it was a long confession. But when I walked out, I didn’t leave shuffling my feet and hanging my head, feeling overwhelmed with guilt and shame. I felt as if an infection had been drawn from me. I felt relieved of a tremendous burden.
I think some of the most beautiful words I hear in our sacramental language are these, and I am always so blessed when I hear them:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and 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…
That is grace. That is love. That is our faith.
This season, you have several opportunities to attend reconciliations services throughout the city. The times are listed in the bulletin. You can also go to regular reconciliation times here at the cathedral on Tuesdays or Saturdays or at other parishes. I urge you to make use of this beautiful sacrament. There is no better preparation during Advent for Christmas, and no better preparation for the Eucharistic feast.
It’s Advent, and it’s time to prepare the way of the Lord. Lay down your pride, lay down your regret, lay down your burden, and let the Lord set you free.