Thursday December 23, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourth Week of Advent
Reading (Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24) Gospel (St. Luke 1:57-66)
As we hear in the Gospel reading today about the birth of Saint John the Baptist, the question of the people of the time was What will this child be? They recognized, of course, the extraordinary events surrounding his conception and his birth: the fact that his father Zechariah had had a vision while he was offering incense in the temple; the fact that he had been struck dumb because he did not believe what the angel had told him, and now he is able to speak once again; the fact that the angel had told him, “The child’s name is to be John,” and that is exactly what he reiterated; and the fact that that was when his mouth was opened so he could praise the Lord for this great miracle that had happened. As the people saw all of these things, they questioned, “What does this mean? What is this child to be, a child whose name is The Grace of God? What is he to be?”
The Church gives us that answer in the first reading as we hear the Lord God speaking through the prophet Malachi, saying, I am sending My messenger to prepare the way before Me, and he talks about how people, the sons of Levi, are going to be refined like silver and gold. In other words, they will be refined of their sins, purified so they can offer fitting sacrifice to the Lord. We hear even further who this is as he says, Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the day of the Lord comes. Remember the words of Our Lord when He said to His apostles, If you are ready to hear this, John the Baptist is Elijah. He is the one who was sent before the Lord to prepare the way of the people and to prepare the hearts of the people to be able to receive the gift that God was giving. And while it says that he is going to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, in a particular way it is to turn the hearts of the children to their one father, that is, God the Father. There needs, of course, to be healing within families, but there needs to be healing within God’s family because so many have strayed from what they know to be the truth and from what they have been taught.
God in His mercy is not simply going to do something and His children would be caught off guard, but rather He is always going to announce it first. He is going to prepare the way, then if people do not want to listen, when the event finally happens they cannot say, “God didn’t warn us. He didn’t tell us. We didn’t have any idea this was coming.” They knew fully well. That is the way the Lord is going to work. So Saint John the Baptist, then, is the forerunner for Christ. He is Elijah. He came in the spirit of Elijah, that spirit that was passed on from Elijah to Elisha, and now the spirit of Elijah being passed on to Saint John the Baptist to be able to prepare the way of the Lord, to be able to open the hearts of the people so they could receive the Messiah when He would come.
Even now the Lord is continuing to do the same as He prepares our hearts, as He refines us. To refine and purify the sons of Levi was necessary because they were the priests, so that they would offer fitting sacrifice to the Lord. We need to have the priests purified. But each one of us also (because of our baptism) is a priest as a member of Jesus Christ, and each one of us is called to offer sacrifice with the Lord. Recall that in Latin the words at the Offertory say: “Pray that my sacrifice and yours…” It does not say: “Pray that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God.” That was an intentional watering-down of the words that are spoken so the people did not understand what it was that they were to do. You are to bring your sacrifice to the Lord – your sufferings, your struggles, your difficulties of day-to-day life – and you are to place them on the paten; you are to place them in the chalice so that your sufferings are united with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
The priest must have his heart purified so he is offering true sacrifice to the Father. Not that the sacrifice of Jesus is in any way diminished because of the priest not having the right disposition, but rather the love and the disposition that should be toward God, if it is not there, is going to affect what is happening at Mass. It does not affect what Jesus is doing, but it is going to affect everything else. This is why both the priest and the people have to be purified. We have to have our hearts turned toward our heavenly Father so we can offer true and fitting and acceptable sacrifice to God. It is indeed the sacrifice of Jesus, but we are united with His sacrifice, each and every one of us. We are incorporated into that sacrifice and we are to take part in it because His sacrifice was not a one-time deal two thousand years ago. His sacrifice continues to be offered. It has continued every day for two thousand years as the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered, the exact same sacrifice that Jesus offered on the Cross two thousand years ago. Our sacrifice, our sufferings, our struggles are to be united with His sacrifice so the suffering of Christ will continue, so the sacrifice will continue to have its efficacy. The only way that is going to happen is if our hearts are purified, if our hearts are turned toward our heavenly Father so we will be able to offer true, fitting, pure, and perfect sacrifice to God.
That is what He desires. That is why Saint John the Baptist was sent two thousand years ago to prepare the hearts of the people. And still the message of John the Baptist is being proclaimed for the exact same reason: to turn the hearts of the children of God to their heavenly Father so they will offer true sacrifice and open the heart of our heavenly Father to greater mercy toward His children so this wonderful exchange will be worked, that the mercy of God will be poured down upon us and we will be able to receive His salvation.
So as we prepare for the glory of Christmas, and as we prepare ourselves for our own death eventually, for the Second Coming eventually, we all have to have our hearts turned in the right direction. We want to be united perfectly with Jesus Christ so the sacrifice of Christ will have the full efficacy that it needs because the hearts of the children are completely opened, purified, and turned toward their heavenly Father so that they will receive His mercy, His grace, and His love. They then will be able to fulfill what God is calling them to be.
As that question was asked of John the Baptist, so it is of us, What will this child be? Only we can answer that question. We know who we are. We are children of God, we are heirs with Christ, and we are members of Jesus Christ. Now the question is whether we are going to live it. When we ask the question, What will this child be, it is completely in our hands to make that free choice, to make that free act of the will to say, “I will act as a child of God, I will unite myself with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and I will offer myself as a pure sacrifice to God our Father.”
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.