Matthew 3:1-12, Second Sunday of Advent
Oh my God – what a Gospel! Like a lion roaring in the wilderness, so John the Baptist castigates those who came to him, especially the religious leaders. Are we not looking forward to Christmas, sing Christmas songs, put up a Belen with a cute Baby Jesus? And then the Church presents us today with such a firebrand preacher as John the Baptist.
But I think it’s good. It’s a wake-up call to reality which is not at all sweet, emotional and sentimental. Just watch the daily news on TV! The reality in which we live is harsh like the words of John the Baptist. And in this harsh reality we have to live as Christians.
There are two ways that we can live out our Catholic faith. We can live it passively, or we can live it personally. When we live our faith passively, we are like the Pharisees and Sadducees that came to be baptized by John in the Jordan River.
They were the religious and social leaders in Israel. They were, if we translate it into our modern language, the most visible and active members of their parish. They knew what to do when they went to Church, they knew all the prayers – on the surface, they appeared to be models of religion. They placed their confidence in being “children of Abraham.” In other words, culturally speaking, they were good Jews. They came from Jewish families and followed Jewish customs.
But John the Baptist warns them that being cultural Jews wasn’t enough. “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones,” he says. Their religion was on the surface: it didn’t touch their hearts.
And let us be honest, we are constantly tempted to make the same mistake. Little by little, we can become too self-satisfied just because we come to Mass, receive the sacraments, and say our prayers before meals. We can become complacent because we look like model Catholics on the outside, cultural Catholics.
But our faith is about much more than that. To be Catholic is to be Christian, to be an active, dedicated, energetic follower of Jesus Christ, to have a personal friendship with him, to know him deeply and to love him passionately by striving to build up his Kingdom.
When we live our faith passively, we are like artificial plants: we look nice, but we bear no fruit. Today, Christ is reminding us to live our faith more personally, so that our lives can be branches of the true vine, “producing good fruit.”
You may have heard about the “megachurch” phenomenon. A megachurch is a non-denominational, Bible-centered Christian congregation that draws thousands of people to its weekly services. The phenomenon started about thirty years ago, as a way to bring people back to the basics of Christianity – a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
You may have heard of Rick Warren, pastor of a megachurch in southern California, whose book, The Purpose Driven Life, has over 20 million copies in print.
Or you may also have heard of Joel Osteen, author of two national bestsellers, who runs a megachurch in Houston, Texas, that attracts 38,000 people to its Sunday services and 200 million households to its television broadcasts.
These are just some of the better known megachurch leaders, but megachurches are springing up throughout North America, and they are even sending missionaries abroad.
One little known fact about these megachurches is useful for us to reflect on. Usually, more than 25% of their members are former Catholics.
A successful fitness expert recently explained why he left the Catholic Church: “No one ever told me that Jesus Christ was offering me his friendship. When I found that friendship elsewhere, how could I refuse it?”
The megachurches will come and go, as many other religious movements have done, while the Catholic Church, founded by Christ himself, nourished with the sacraments, guided through the divinely-guaranteed leadership, will endure.
But that doesn’t mean that we are spiritually healthy just because we still come to Mass. We can easily forget that Catholics are called to be Christians, that we are supposed to be living a vibrant, personal friendship with Christ, not just going through the motions of religion.
Last week I had a very interesting discussion in one of my classes. Some seminarians felt bored in their daily Mass and prayer. They felt as if they were going day after day through a routine, reading psalms and prayers which did not express their personal feelings. Their faith was in danger to be lives passively.
One way to live our faith less passively and more personally has to do with a value, or a virtue, central to the season of Advent. St Paul puts the spotlight on it in the Second Reading from the Letter to the Romans. He writes that, “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
In other words, the history of God’s saving action among men, which we turn our attention to during Advent, should stir up within us an energetic supernatural optimism – what St Paul calls “hope”.
Hope is the opposite of discouragement and pessimism. Hope is the confidence that no matter how dark it may get in the middle of the night, the light of Christ will never be extinguished.
The devil hates hope. He loves discouragement, because it breeds cynicism and despair. He does his best to turn our attention to the shadows and darkness, to the problems and failures. Discouragement is the most paralyzing of vices. If we give in to discouragement, our faith becomes completely passive, completely impersonal.
How can we beat the devil, stir up the virtue of hope, and escape from the paralysis of cynicism and discouragement?
There is a simple way: stop complaining. Much is wrong in the world, the Church, and our own lives. But complaining fixes nothing and draws our attention to the darkness. To be people of Christian hope, we must learn to turn our complaints into construction projects, to never mention a problem without at the same time proposing a solution. That’s how true Christians think and live, because they are personal friends of Christ the Lord, whose power and wisdom are without limit.