Advent—Week Two

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Public Repentance

Second Sunday of Advent (Year A)

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Matthew 3:7–8

This was both a very intense and yet very holy encounter. It was intense in that Saint John the Baptist, who had become quite popular and respected and was considered a great prophet, spoke harshly toward the Pharisees and Sadducees. “You brood of vipers!” he says. This was not the way the Pharisees and Sadducees were normally spoken to.

John speaks this way because it was the truth. These religious leaders were not leading anyone closer to God. One only needs to ponder all that Jesus would eventually say to the Pharisees and Sadducees to understand what kind of people these religious leaders had become.

So this passage is certainly intense. But it is also very holy. It is holy because this “brood of vipers” needed to be chastised. They needed to be condemned and challenged. They needed to be humbled. And there is nothing more humbling than sincerely repenting of one’s sins in a public way.

Notice that John does not dismiss the leaders outright. Rather, he requires of them “evidence” of their repentance. Why? Because of the spiritual damage these men did to the people of Israel on account of their pride, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, love of public honors, condemnation of others, etc. They had so distorted the faith that the good of their souls required public repentance. It required that everyone see sincere good fruits flowing from their lives as a sign that they had changed. Though this is a tall order for the Pharisees and Sadducees, it’s the way to holiness for them.

The same is true for us. If you have allowed yourself to fall into some of the same traps as the Pharisees and Sadducees, then you, too, will greatly benefit from clear and humble public change. If you have struggled with self-righteousness, a critical tongue, a “holier than thou” attitude or a judgmental attitude toward others, then you might have great need for a humble and public repentance.

Reflect, today, upon the Pharisees and Sadducees. Try to understand their sin and the reason John called them a “brood of vipers.” If you see any of their pride and self-righteousness within your own soul, then listen to this exhortation from John the Baptist as if it were spoken to you directly. “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Do this, and God will free you through the gift of true humility.

My humble Lord, You call all people to repentance with great humility and sincerity. Please help me to see my sin and to never shy away from facing it, so that You can free me from that filth and set me more firmly on the path to holiness. Jesus, I trust in You.

Called to the Desert

Second Sunday of Advent (Year B)

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. 

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Mark 1:1–3

These, the opening lines from the Gospel of Saint Mark, present us with Saint John the Baptist. John was the one that Isaiah prophesied would come before the Messiah. John was given the responsibility and privilege of being the one who would be the most immediate preparer for the Savior of the World.

Perhaps if most people were given the task of instructing John on how best to prepare the way for the Lord, they would tell him he must go to the leaders of the people, the civil authorities, the influential and those of status in society to win them over first. Many would conclude that the Messiah needed to have the full support of the leaders at that time. But that’s obviously not what John did.

John the Baptist, at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was driven not into the homes of the most prestigious and wealthy, not into the halls of the civil governors, and not into the synagogues or Temple. Instead, John was driven into the desert. And in the desert, that dry and deserted place, he drew many people to himself and to his message of repentance.

God continues to call many today to follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist. Though John was a real person sent on a real mission at one particular moment in time, the mission he fulfilled is one that still needs fulfilling in various ways today. The “way of the Lord” still needs to be prepared. The Lord still desires to come to many, and He needs prophets to prepare the way for His continual coming by grace. Are you one of those people?

Truth be told, every one of us, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, young or old, etc., is called by God to prepare the way for His coming by grace every day. We are called to prepare the way by calling others to sincere repentance and conversion of life. This is done by the witness of our actions, by our words and by numerous other ways that God calls. How is God calling you to do His work? He is certainly calling you. You simply need to be open to that calling and generously respond.

Reflect, today, upon that “desert” to which you have been called, so as to prepare yourself and others for the coming of Christ. That desert is any place where there is need and every place where our Lord is not. It might be your family, work environment, community, among friends, or any place that lacks the superabundance of God’s grace. Seek to enter those deserts and to be open to be a channel of our Lord’s grace to those in need. 

Lord, You desire to come to me and to all of Your children every day. Please use me to not only prepare my own heart and soul for Your divine coming but to also prepare others to meet You. Give me wisdom and compassion, insight and strength, so that I can imitate Saint John the Baptist and prepare the way for Your most glorious coming by grace. Jesus, I trust in You.

Removing the Obstacles to Grace

Second Sunday of Advent (Year C)

“Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:5–6

These, the words of the prophet Isaiah, were spoken about the mission of Saint John the Baptist. John was to “Prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make straight his paths.” In prophesying this, Isaiah goes on to give this very descriptive image of John’s ministry. It would be one that levels mountains and valleys, straightens every winding road, and smooths out the rough terrain. In other words, John came to remove every obstacle to God, making it easy to encounter the Messiah.

How does John complete this mission? By calling the people of that time to the dry and empty desert where all the false allurements cease to exist. This is done by detachment from the many sins and temptations they faced. Their repentance was an act by which the people humbled themselves before God, admitted their sins and acknowledged their need for a Savior. This humble admission, coupled with the commitment to change their ways, prepared heart after heart for the grace and mercy that came through Christ the Lord.

Today, there are countless obstacles to grace that so many people encounter. Some have been drawn into the satisfactions of earthly riches and material comforts and find little need for God. Others have very little that this world can offer but are consumed with a desire for money and the passing comforts it promises. And still others are drawn into many other forms of sins and false satisfactions. But there are some who are like a dry and deserted desert, just waiting to soak up the gentle rain of God’s grace. These are those who have sought to detach themselves from the false promises of this world and remain “empty” and “dry” so as to be prepared for the abundance of grace when it comes. These holy souls have heeded the call to repentance and have humbly acknowledged their need for the Savior.

Reflect, today, upon whether or not your soul is like that dry and barren desert, detached from all the false and passing satisfactions of this world, and prepared to soak up the mercy and grace of God alone. Repentance brings forth detachment, and detachment prepares the soul for God. When one is truly detached and free from the many obstacles to God, then the road from God to your soul will be straight and easily traveled. Reflect upon your soul today and where you see unhealthy attachments. Repent with all your heart so that you are among those most fully ready for an abundance of the grace and mercy of God.

Lord, I turn to You in my need and repent of the many lies and false promises of satisfaction in this world. Please free me from all that is not of You so that my soul will be more fully prepared to soak You and Your mercy up like a gentle rain upon a dry and barren desert. I open myself to You, my Lord. Come fill and satiate my soul. Jesus, I trust in You.

Loving the Proud and Arrogant

 Monday of the Second Week of Advent

And some men brought on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed; they were trying to bring him in and set him in his presence. But not finding a way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on the stretcher through the tiles into the middle in front of Jesus. Luke 5:18–19

It’s interesting to note that, as the paralyzed man’s faith-filled friends lowered him down from the roof in front of Jesus, Jesus was surrounded by Pharisees and teachers of the law “from every village of Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem” (Luke 5:17). The religious leaders came in droves.  They were among the most educated of the Jews and happened to be among the ones who had gathered to see Jesus speak that day. And it was partly on account of large numbers of them gathering around Jesus that the friends of the paralyzed man could not reach Jesus without this radical move of opening the roof.

So what does Jesus do when He sees the paralytic lowered before Him from the roof? He told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven. Sadly, those words were immediately met with severe interior criticism from these religious leaders. They said among themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?” (Luke 5:21).

But Jesus knew their thoughts and decided to do one more act for the good of these religious leaders. The first act of Jesus, to forgive the paralytic’s sins, was for the good of the paralytic. But the paralytic’s physical healing, interestingly, appears to be primarily for these pompous and self-righteous Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus heals the man so that they will “know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5:24). As soon as Jesus performs this miracle, the Gospel tells us that everyone was “struck with awe” and glorified God. Apparently, this included the judgmental religious leaders.

So what does this teach us? It shows how deeply Jesus loved these religious leaders despite their exceptional pride and judgmentalism. He wanted to win them over. He wanted them to convert, humble themselves and turn to Him. It’s somewhat easy to show love and compassion to one who is paralyzed, rejected, and humiliated already. But it takes an incredible amount of love to also care deeply about the proud and arrogant.

Reflect, today, upon the love Jesus had for these religious leaders. Though they came to find fault with Him, falsely judge Him and continually tried to trap Him, Jesus never ceased in His attempts to win them over. As you think about this mercy of our Lord, consider also the person in your life who is most difficult to love, and recommit to loving them with your whole heart in imitation of our divine Lord.

My most merciful Lord, give me a heart of forgiveness and mercy for others. Help me, especially, to have a deep concern for those whom I find most difficult to love. In imitation of Your divine mercy, strengthen me to act with a radical love for all so that they will come to know You more deeply. Jesus, I trust in You.

The Joy of Our Lord

Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent

“Jesus said to his disciples: “What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?”  Matthew 18:12

This Gospel passage goes on to say that the man who finds that one stray sheep “rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.” At first, this might seem unfair. Why not primarily rejoice over the ninety-nine who did not stray? Saint Hillary, in commenting on this passage, interprets the man who sought out the one stray sheep as the Son of God. He left the “ninety-nine,” meaning the glory of the hosts of Heaven, to descend to earth to seek out straying humanity. Humanity as a whole is that one lost sheep. That includes us all.

The first thing this interpretation reveals to us is that the Son of God was clearly sent on a mission to seek out each and every one of us after we strayed far from the Father in Heaven. The Father did not sit back and wait for us to return. Rather, He sent the Son on a diligent mission of seeking us out to bring us back into His divine fold.

As we reflect upon this passage, it is important to see the zeal and determination of our Lord as He seeks us out. Do you see this in your own life? Sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking that it is primarily our responsibility to seek out God. And though we certainly have this responsibility, our duty is made much easier when we understand how passionately our Lord seeks us out and desires to find us when we stray. Only in Heaven will we fully understand all that our Lord has done to seek us out, day in and day out. But for now, we must strive to understand this spiritual truth so that we will be more open to Jesus’ diligent search for us.

A second thing this passage reveals is the joy in the Heart of the Son of God every time He finds us and carries us away from our sin. Too often we can fall into the trap of seeing God as a judgmental God who is angry at us and condemning. But if we understand the extent to which the Son of God went, so as to find us when we stray, and if we can understand the joy in His heart upon finding us and carrying us away from sin, then we will more readily open ourselves to Him, to His gentle invitations, and to His merciful Heart every time He comes to us by grace.

Reflect, today, upon the great anticipation in the Heart of our Lord as He personally seeks you out. The anticipation is that of joy—the joy that He is filled with as He picks you up and gently carries you back to the Father. Allow this joy in the Heart of our Lord to come to fruition so that you will share in this abundance of joy.

My diligent Lord, You seek me out, day and night, never tiring of calling me to return more fully to Yourself. Please help me to fill Your Heart with joy by always responding to Your gentle invitations of love and mercy. Jesus, I trust in You.

Laying Down Your Burdens

Wednesday of the Second Week of Advent

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28

One of the most delightful and healthy activities in life is sleep. This is especially the case when one is able to enter into a deep and refreshing sleep. Upon awakening, the person who has slept deeply feels refreshed and ready for a new day. Of course, the opposite is also true. When sleep is difficult and restless, the person can suffer numerous ill effects, especially when a lack of healthy sleep becomes the norm.

The same is true in our spiritual lives. For many people, “spiritual rest” is something foreign to them. They may say a few prayers each week, attend Mass, or even make a holy hour. But unless each one of us enters into a form of prayer that is deep and transforming, we will not be able to experience the interior spiritual rest we need.

Jesus’ invitation in today’s Gospel to “Come to me…” is an invitation to become transformed, interiorly, as we allow Him to relieve us of the burdens of our daily lives. Each day we often face spiritual hardships and challenges, such as temptations, confusions, disappointments, angers and the like. We are often daily bombarded with the lies of the evil one, the hostility of a growing secularized culture and an assault on our senses through the numerous forms of media we daily digest. These and many other things we encounter each and every day will have the effect of wearing us down interiorly on a spiritual level. As a result, we need the spiritual refreshment that comes only from our Lord. We need the spiritual “sleep” that results from deep and revitalizing prayer. And that form of prayer is only possible if we heed Christ’s invitation to come to Him with every fiber of our being, surrendering all that we are and all that we encounter each and every day.

Reflect, today, upon whether you feel weary at times. Ponder, especially, any mental or emotional weariness. Oftentimes these forms of weariness are actually spiritual in nature and need a spiritual remedy. Seek the remedy our Lord offers you by accepting His invitation to come to Him, deeply in prayer, and rest in His presence. Doing so will help to lift the heavy burdens with which you struggle.

My loving Lord, I accept Your invitation to come to You and rest in Your glorious presence. Draw me in, dear Lord, to Your heart that is overflowing with grace and mercy. Draw me into Your presence so that I may rest in You and be delivered from the many burdens of life. Jesus, I trust in You.

Attacking the Enemies of the Soul

Thursday of the Second Week of Advent

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.”  Matthew 11:12

Are you among those who are “violent” and are taking the Kingdom of Heaven “by force?” Hopefully you are!

From time to time, Jesus’ words are difficult to understand. This passage above presents us with one of those situations. Of this passage, Saint Josemaría Escrivá states that the “violent” are Christians who have “fortitude” and “boldness” when the environment they find themselves in is hostile to the faith (See Christ is Passing By, 82). Saint Clement of Alexandria says that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs “to those who fight against themselves” (Quis dives salvetur, 21). In other words, the “violent” who are taking the Kingdom of Heaven are those who vigorously fight against the enemies of their soul so as to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven.

What are the enemies of the soul? Traditionally, we speak of the world, the flesh and the devil. These three enemies have caused much violence within the souls of Christians who are striving to live within God’s Kingdom. So how do we fight for the Kingdom? By force! Some translations say that the “attackers” are taking the Kingdom by force. This means that the Christian life cannot be one that is purely passive. We cannot simply smile our way into Heaven. The enemies of our soul are real, and they are aggressive. Therefore, we must also become aggressive in the sense that we must directly take on these enemies with the fortitude and boldness of Christ.

How do we do this? We take on the enemy of the flesh by fasting and self-denial. We take on the world by remaining grounded in the Truth of Christ, the Truth of the Gospel, refusing to conform to the “wisdom” of the age. And we take on the devil by becoming aware of his malicious plans to deceive us, confuse us and mislead us in all things so as to rebuke him and reject his actions in our life.

Reflect, today, upon your call to grow in fortitude and boldness so as to combat those enemies that attack within. Fear is useless in this battle. Confidence in the power and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ is the only weapon we need. Rely upon Him and do not give in to the many ways that these enemies seek to rob you of the peace of Christ.

My glorious and victorious Lord, I trust in You to pour forth Your grace so that I may stand strong against the world, the temptations of my flesh and the devil himself. Give me courage, boldness and fortitude so that I can fight the good fight of faith and never waver from seeking You and Your most holy will for my life. Jesus, I trust in You.

Dancing and Mourning

Friday of the Second Week of Advent 

Jesus said to the crowds: “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’”   Matthew 11:16–17

What does Jesus mean when He says “We played the flute for you…” and “we sang a dirge…?” The Church Fathers clearly identify this “flute” and “dirge” as the word of God that has been preached by the prophets of old. So many came before Jesus to prepare the way, but so many failed to listen. John the Baptist was the final and greatest prophet, and he called people to repentance, but few listened. Thus, Jesus points out this sad truth.

In our day and age, we have so much more than the prophets of the Old Testament. We have the incredible witness of the saints, the infallible teaching of the Church, the gift of the Sacraments and the life and teaching of the Son of God Himself as recorded in the New Testament. Yet, sadly, so many refuse to listen. So many fail to “dance” and “mourn” in response to the Gospel.

We must “dance” in the sense that the gift of Christ Jesus, by His life, death and resurrection should be the cause of our wholehearted rejoicing and eternal adoration. Those who truly know and love the Son of God are filled with joy! Furthermore, we must “mourn” on account of the countless sins in our own lives and in the lives of those all around us. Sin is real and prevalent, and a holy sorrow is the only appropriate response. Salvation is real. Hell is real. And both of these truths demand a total response from us.

In your own life, how fully have you allowed the Gospel to affect you? How attentive are you to the voice of God as it has been spoken through the lives of the saints and through our Church? Are you tuned in to the voice of God as He speaks to you in the depths of your conscience in prayer? Are you listening? Responding? Following? And giving your whole life in the service of Christ and His mission?

Reflect, today, upon the clear, unmistakable, transforming and life-giving words and presence of the Savior of the world. Reflect upon how attentive you have been in life to all that He has clearly spoken and to His very presence. If you do not find yourself “dancing” for God’s glory and “mourning” over the evident sins of your life and within our world, then recommit yourself to a radical following of Christ. In the end, the Truth that God has spoken throughout the ages and His holy and divine presence are all that matter.

My glorious Lord Jesus, I acknowledge Your divine presence in my life and in the world all around me. Help me to be more attentive to the countless ways that You speak to me and come to me each and every day. As I discover You and Your holy word, fill me with joy. As I see my sin and the sins of the world, give me true sorrow so that I will work tirelessly to combat my own sin and bring Your love and mercy to those who are most in need. Jesus, I trust in You.

Approaching the Word of God

Saturday of the Second Week of Advent 

“I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased.  So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.”  Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.  Matthew 17:12–13

The last of the Old Testament Prophets was Malachi. He concluded his ministry about 400 years prior to the coming of Christ. Malachi prophesied that a “messenger” would come before the Messiah so as to prepare the way before Him. Malachi goes on further to say that “Elijah the Prophet” will come before the day of the Lord (See Malachi 3:1–24).

Many of the people at the time of Jesus did not understand this prophecy and were not even aware of it. Therefore, the scribes used this prophecy to confuse many of the people by claiming that since “Elijah” had not come, then clearly Jesus was not the promised Messiah.

Jesus clarified to the disciples that the “messenger,” who was to be the new Elijah, had already come in the person of John the Baptist. Thus, in clarifying this, Jesus also clarified that the scribes were not accurate in their attempt to interpret the Scriptures and were actively misleading the people on account of their errors.

One thing this tells us is that we must approach the word of God with humility. The pride of the scribes led them to believe that they had some sort of extraordinary wisdom that they did not. Thus, they acted as poor spiritual teachers of the people of God.

Humility before the Word of God is essential if we are to properly understand not only the Old Testament prophecies but also the very words of Jesus Himself. Without humility before the Word of God, we can all easily misinterpret the beautiful and holy words spoken by our Lord.

Everything in the Scriptures is profound, deep and true. And by this holy Word of God we come to meet God Himself. But if we allow pride to seep in, we may find ourselves imitating the scribes and misunderstanding God’s Word. The result will be a skewed image of God which will become an impediment to our personal encounter with our loving Lord. But if we can always remain humble before all that God has revealed to us, then we will more easily be open to those deepest and most beautiful truths God wants to speak to our hearts.

Reflect, today, anyway that you have found yourself confused by the Word of God. Try to humbly open your heart more fully to that which our Lord wants to speak to you. Listen with an open mind and heart and allow the pure gift of faith to become your guide so that you will be led to those deepest truths of our faith.

My mysterious and beautiful Lord, You have revealed to us the deepest and most profound mysteries of life through Your written Word. May I always approach Your Word with humility and openness so that I will come to know You more fully. Jesus, I trust in You.

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