December 5, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Second Sunday of Advent
Reading I (Isaiah 11:1-10) Reading II (Romans 15:4-9)
Gospel (St. Matthew 3:1-12)
In the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear about this shoot that is going to sprout from the stump of Jesse. Now we have to realize what this means. Jesse, of course, is the father of King David, and we have the promises that were made to King David that a son was going to sit upon his throne perpetually. Yet, at the same time, we are told that the shoot is going to sprout from the stump of Jesse, which means that the house of David is going to be cut down, and then from what looks like nothing remaining, suddenly this righteous shoot is going to come forth. That is precisely what happened. By the time Saint Joseph lived, the house of David was something of a laughingstock. There was not much left regarding the house of David, and suddenly from the stump came this new shoot, the one righteous Shoot from the stump of Jesse. And we hear at the end of the first reading that He is going to be set up as a signal for the Gentiles.
In between the beginning and the end of today’s reading, we hear about the various things that are going to happen because of this individual. One of the interesting things that one can see are all of the apparent contradictions, that is, we hear about things like the bear and the lamb will be together, and the lion and the ox will be eating hay, and the child will be playing with the snake, and things like this, things that on the natural level make no sense. If we look at this from the point of view of a Jewish person a couple of thousand years ago, to hear the words that the Gentiles are going to seek out this Shoot from the stump of Jesse, that He would be set up as a signal to the nations, to the Gentiles, well, first of all, they could grasp the concept that the Gentiles would want to become Jewish because the Jewish people had the fullness of God’s truth as it had been revealed at that time. But what they could not grasp is that they themselves would have to change, that there was more truth to be revealed that had not yet been revealed, and that they would have to find the fullness of the faith they had already believed and there would be more that would complete what they already had. And so this apparent contradiction in the mind of the Jewish people, that Jews and Gentiles would be one, made no sense to them. Yet that is exactly what we hear Saint Paul talking about as he writes to the Romans, which was a community that was a mixture of both Jews and Gentile converts. We hear about how the Gentiles are going to give praise to God, and he tells us that is the very reason why Jesus came. It was to fulfill everything that had been promised to the patriarchs, but also to call the Gentiles to Himself. So we see the fulfillment of all these things.
Now as we look at it up to the point of Jesus’ time, suddenly John the Baptist is there on the scene, proclaiming repentance and baptizing the people when they would show their repentance. It is interesting to note that when some of the leaders among the Jewish people came (those who would be the Pharisees and the Sadducees), John the Baptist chastised them and he told them that they had to show some sign of their repentance, that they had to bear fruit of repentance. It was not just enough to go through the motion of having this baptism done. Because they were among the leaders, he recognized that they did not really want to repent; they did not want to change. The reality of the matter is when it came to the Jewish leadership they did not want the Messiah. John the Baptist was preaching that there was One coming after him, the One who would be the Messiah, and that these people needed to show some kind of sign that they were truly repentant before they would be able to accept the Messiah. They did not want Him (not in the theoretical sense, but in the practical sense) because it would mean (in their fear of what it might mean) that they would lose their jobs, they would lose their livelihood, they would have to change. They would have to accept, not only that the Gentiles would become one with them, but that they themselves would have to change to become one with the Gentiles. This made no sense to them. And Saint John the Baptist chastised them also because they would look at him and say, “But we have Abraham as our father,” and he said to them, “God can raise up children of Abraham from these very stones.”
If we bring this forward two thousand years and look at our own selves, we see some of the same problems. That is, for those of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ from our infancy, it is all too easy to take Him for granted and to be able to sit back and say, “Well, I’m a Catholic.” I think if Saint John the Baptist were here today he would say to us, “Show some sign, show the fruit of what it means to be a Catholic, of your repentance. It is not enough to be able to sit back and say, ‘I’m a Catholic,’ because God can raise up Catholics from the very stones.” We are being called to repentance, to true repentance, but we are all too much just like the Jewish leadership: We really do not want Jesus because it means we would have to change.
What is happening right now in our own midst is that there are many people who had never heard of Jesus Christ before and there are many people who had heard of Him but had rejected Him and had gone off and lived some pretty incredibly sinful lives, and these people are turning their lives around. They are coming to the Lord and they are putting their faith into practice. They are bearing the fruit of repentance while the rest of us sit around and say, “But I’m already a Catholic.” Saint John the Baptist would look at us and chastise us and say, “Show the good works, the fruit of your repentance. Show what it means to be a Catholic. Just don’t sit there and say, ‘Well, I’m a Catholic,’ and then be a hypocrite and live an entirely pagan life; it does not work that way.”
If we are called to repentance, it means to change our hearts, it means to live in a different way than we had before. That may be easier for someone who as an adult recognizes they are on the wrong path and that they need to change and they have turned to the Lord and have given Him their lives. It is much more difficult for those of us who have become complacent, who just kind of take our faith for granted and therefore we do not live it because we will sit back and say, “Well, I can do it anytime,” and therefore we do not do it at all. So today we are being called to what would seem an apparent contradiction. We are being called to seek out the Root of Jesse. If the Gentiles were to seek Him out, it is important to note from Our Lord’s own words that He came to call the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Part of His purpose was to bring the Gentiles into the fold, but He never went out to the Gentiles – He went only to the people of Israel – the Gentiles had to come to Him. So for those of us who have already been incorporated into Him, we now need to come to Him. We need to seek Him out. It is not enough to say, “But He is right there. He’s there in the Blessed Sacrament 24 hours a day. I know where He is, why do I need to seek Him out?” We need to seek Him out because we have to change, because we have to show the fruit of our repentance.
During this holy season, all of us then are called to take inventory of our souls, to look into our hearts, and to find the areas where we are not prepared for the coming of Christ, to look at the areas of our lives where we have become complacent, or even worse, to find the areas where we really do not want Jesus to be because we like our sins, because we do not want to change, because the worldliness is too enticing and we do not want to give it up, because Jesus has no place in our hearts and we really do not want Him there. That is the contradiction, that a Catholic would be a pagan. It does not work. The pagans are becoming Catholic and they are living their faith. They are showing the good fruit of their repentance while the rest of us sit back smugly and think it is no big deal for us. God can raise up Catholics from the very stones, and if we do not want to live it we are going to be lost.
So in this time we have an opportunity to prepare our hearts, to rid ourselves of all the areas where we have locked Our Lord out of our lives, to look at the areas where we are living sinful and pagan lives – worldly lives, selfish lives – and to make some changes. The word repentance implies turning around, making a change. The Jewish leadership did not want to change, and tragically neither do most Catholics want to change. In this case, I am not saying changing from being Catholic to being something else; I am saying changing from being a “Cafeteria Catholic” or a mediocre Catholic or a nominal Catholic to being a real one, to accepting the fullness of the truth and allowing it to penetrate the depths of our hearts, and to truly live the faith that we profess. Each one of us needs to look very seriously at our own lives and ask ourselves, “If we today had come to Saint John the Baptist, what would he say to us?” Would he tell us that we are a brood of vipers? Would he tell us that we need to show some good fruit, some true signs of our repentance? Or would he recognize in us one who is truly living the faith that we profess?
It is necessary now for us who have been Catholic our whole life, or for those who may have converted a long time ago and have fallen into the typical Catholic mediocrity and complacency, to turn once again, to realize that the fallen house of David has a righteous Shoot coming forth from it and that He is set up as a signal to the nations. He is established as a signal to each one of us, and it is time now that we seek Him out, that we truly repent, that we change our lives and show the true fruit of that repentance by lives of good works, by lives of following the Commandments, by lives that are lived in accordance with the faith that we preach. That is what we are being asked to do. So take time this day to look at your life, to look at your soul. Take stock of your sins and get to Confession. But do not just go through the motions like the Pharisees and the Sadducees were doing with John the Baptist. Show the true signs of your repentance and live the faith that you profess.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.