Today we celebrate the third Sunday of advent and we light the rose coloured candle. It is also called ‘Gaudete Sunday’ which means ‘rejoice.’ Advent was originally a penitential time like Lent, in order to prepare for Christmas. This Sunday was meant to give everyone a break from the penitential focus in order to remind us that the Lord’s coming is near and it is something to rejoice in.
Advent is also meant to be a time of hope for us, because the one who is coming to help us is Lord of heaven and earth, the master of the whole universe and all things are subject to him. John the Baptist painted a pretty frightening picture of him as the one who would come to judge all people and bring justice to the earth. But what is also important to remember is that this extraordinary person of Jesus is coming to help us, not to condemn us.
I wonder if John the Baptist came here today what he would say to us. One thing I am pretty sure of is that it would disturb us, because that is what he did. He disturbed people by what he said. He preached with passion and told people to change, to repent, to begin again. What exactly did he ask people to do? He asked them to repent of their sins, to change their way of life, to be open to God. He challenged the religious leaders (the equivalent of bishops and priests) to beware of how they lived, as they would be accountable before God. Their lives must bear fruit. Wearing religious clothes (like the Roman collar I wear as a priest) is no guarantee that a person is pleasing to God. What is important is how I live my life. It’s interesting how King Herod had John arrested because he denounced him for doing what was morally wrong, namely marrying his brother’s wife. But Herod was troubled by John because he knew he was a holy man and liked to listen to him. He knew that John was right.
The message of the Gospels which we read and talk about each week is a wonderful message of hope, but it is also a message which never lets us get too comfortable, because if we get too comfortable in ourselves we stop growing. This is something that Pope Francis is reminding us of in no uncertain terms. We must live what we profess, especially looking out for those who are poor.
If John the Baptist came here and preached today I think he would probably say things like, ‘Confess your sins to the priests, as God asks you to; be faithful to your marriage; sacrifice yourselves for your children; learn to forgive each other and don’t be seeking revenge when things go wrong. Stop suing each other. Be just to your employees.’ To us priests he would probably say, ‘Make sure you are living what you preach and sacrificing yourselves for the people you have been sent to serve; don’t let yourselves get too comfortable and make sure God is at the heart of all that you do. Be obedient to your bishops.’ We don’t usually want to be challenged in this way, but this is what the Lord presents us with.
Every year as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, when God ‘pitched his tent among us’, the most important preparation we can make is the preparation of the heart. We begin again. We look honestly at ourselves and how we live. Do we need to change? Probably; because it is easy to become lax and indifferent to the struggles of the people around us.
When the Lord challenges us to look at ourselves and begin again, it is not to make us feel guilty or inadequate; rather it is to help us to grow. God pushes us, if you like, helping us to become the best version of ourselves that we can be.
Because John the Baptist spoke the truth and challenged people with strong words, it cost him his life. Jesus was killed because he spoke the truth. All the Apostles and most of the Prophets were killed too. We don’t like to be told we need to change, but if we wish to continue to grow closer to God then we must remove everything that prevents us from coming closer to him.
‘Prepare a way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’