Tuesday December 23, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourth Week of Advent
Reading (Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24) Gospel (St. Luke 1:57-66)
In the readings today, we see in a very profound way the mercy of God. For instance, in the Gospel reading we hear of the birth of John the Baptist and how Elizabeth rejoiced that God had extended His mercy to her, and how all of her neighbors rejoiced with her at the birth of her son, considering her circumstances (well beyond the normal age of being able to bear a child) and the great mercy of God and the glory of God that was to be shown through this child. Of course, we know what his purpose was. He was to be the forerunner, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament prophets, the one who was the point of transition. And to be able to make very evident the mercy of God shown to Elizabeth in this child, God had declared the name for the child Himself, a name which means “God is gracious”.
So the grace and the mercy of God was going to be present because his task was precisely to bring people to that mercy, Jesus Himself being the very Mercy of God for Whom Saint John the Baptist was preparing the people’s hearts. His task was to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers; and in so doing, turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. In this case, it is not so much the earthly fathers but our heavenly Father. As he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, it is that purity of soul which turns our heavenly Father’s heart to us; but it is the mercy of God that is present even before we turn to Him, seeking out His children, desiring that we would turn to Him, desiring that we would be forgiven and that our hearts would be open. But because God will never force anything upon us, we have to make the choice. We have to choose to turn to Him. He gives to us all the grace necessary but we still have to say “yes” to that, and He asks that we would simply make the choice for Him. That is what all of these people did as they came to John the Baptist and he preached to them about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. As they turned to God and opened their hearts to receive God’s mercy, He was then able to pour His mercy and His grace into their hearts.
And it is precisely for the purpose that we hear in the first reading. The prophet Malachi says, “He will purify them like gold and silver so that they may offer due sacrifice to the Lord.” When one offers sacrifice to the Lord, the more pure one’s heart is and the more proper one’s disposition, the more perfect will be that offering. In other words, in the Old Testament if one wants to offer a sheep or a goat or a bull or whatever it may be to the Lord, but their heart is far from God and there is little love for God, all it is is a perfunctory thing. And of that, Saint Paul says that no one is going to be saved by merely following the law, by the mere external following of the precepts of the law. In the New Testament, the same principle is present except even far greater because the sacrifice we offer is nothing less than God Himself – it is Jesus Christ. If one can have a distance from God while offering a sheep or a bull and that sacrifice, because of the distance of the heart of that individual, is rendered unacceptable because the person has no love in their heart as they are offering their sacrifice, how much more is that going to be true when the sacrifice is Jesus Himself. How is it possible for one to keep a distance from the sacrifice that is being offered when the One we are offering is Love Himself? How can we not have the proper disposition? How can our hearts be far from God when the sacrifice is God? That is the point we have to be able to see.
So the task of Saint John the Baptist, which is the task of Elijah, continues through every generation and into our own. It is the task of the Church to call people to repentance, to bring people to open their hearts to God so that they will be able to receive His grace, so that they will know His mercy, and so that their hearts will be turned to their heavenly Father and they will be able to offer fitting sacrifice to the Lord, an acceptable sacrifice to God. The sacrifice itself (just as in the Old Testament if they offered an unblemished lamb) is perfectly fine; every time we offer Mass, it is Jesus; the sacrifice Himself is perfect. The question is not about Him; the question is only about us. What is our disposition in offering that sacrifice and what is our disposition in receiving His gift, the gift of Himself as He gives Himself entirely to us? Those are the things that we need to look at.
As we prepare to receive Our Lord in two days, what is the disposition of our hearts? Is it focused on the Lord? Is the heart truly open to receive the grace of God that He gives to us on Christmas? Or is the heart focused more on the self, focused more on things rather than on the Lord? When we consider the very purpose for which God has sent His Son, the purpose for which He has established the Church, the purpose of our lives, it is all about turning the hearts of the people of God to God Himself so that we will be able to receive the grace that God wishes to give us. And the grace that God wants to give us is nothing less than His Son, to pour Jesus Christ into our hearts and unite us with Christ. When we look at what God desires and we realize that all we need to do is turn to God and open our hearts, then we need to ask ourselves why anyone would not want to do that, why anyone would keep their heart closed, why anyone would want to come to Mass with a disposition which is less than loving. When we see what God is doing for us, all that is lacking is our response; or, shall I say, if anything is lacking, it is clearly not on God’s part but on ours. What remains for us is to open our hearts. The grace is there. The call is there. Everything is present from God’s side to turn our hearts to Him – all we need to do is say “yes”.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.