How would you feel if you got a Christmas card that read like this:
Our thoughts of you this Christmas are best expressed in the words of John the Baptist, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.”
Merry Christmas from Fr. Murchadh."
I suppose we would add Fr. Murchadh, or whoever sent it, to our list of x-friends!
Advent has really become the time of getting ready for Christmas in the sense of buying the gifts we want to give, going to office parties, etc, but this is quite different from the original message. John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus and his message was very strong. ‘Repent, confess your sins, change your lives and look for happiness in God.’ This is the part of preparing for Christmas that is easy to overlook. We want the celebration of Christmas, but we don’t necessarily want to have to repent. Just leave us alone and let us celebrate. We want absolution, but without having to confess. We want the love and blessing of God without having to follow the commandments. We want faith on our terms. That is called ‘cheap grace’. It is empty and it is not the message of God.
|First image from the James Webb telescope|
The message of God is a wonderful one, but is also a very demanding one. We can not come and pick what we like. Instead we come and ask what is required of us? That is what the people who came to John asked: ‘What must we do?’ To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower. We are not used to thinking this way, because our world encourages us to make sure things are as we would like them. If you’re not happy, move on; but this is not the message of the Gospels. In the Gospel we listen to what it is that God asks of us. We follow God on God’s terms and not our terms.
It's the same mentality when people say the mass is boring. It may be boring at times, but if it is it’s because I am looking to get something out of it. What’s in it for me? No one every says a funeral was boring, because they know why they are there: to honor the dead, to pay our respect. The mass is about me giving of myself, to worship God, to give him thanks and praise for all that we have. If I understand that then the mass won’t be boring, because I am no longer saying ‘What’s in it for me?’
Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born of woman, which is quite a statement. He was totally focused on God. He knew what was important and he passed on the message he was told to pass on and it cost him his life. When he said that what the king was doing was immoral, he was arrested and imprisoned. They shut down his ministry. Then he was beheaded by Herod for speaking the truth. We don’t always want to hear the truth, because it is often demanding and challenges us to change and sometimes it tells us we are wrong. No one likes to hear that.
If we are serious about celebrating Christmas as a Christian feast, then let us not forget the message of John the Baptist. ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ The term ‘repent’ means turn away from sin, but it can also mean ‘change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.’ That is a message many people need to hear. So many people are looking for happiness in the world, but when the things of the world collapse, they are left disappointed. Worldly things don’t fulfil us. However, the Lord is telling us to turn to him for happiness. It is only in God that we will find true happiness. The world will disappoint us; God will not. People will let us down, but God will not.
The sin of Adam and Eve was a very similar sin to what we see going on today. It involved three things: (1) rejecting the idea that they had to serve God, or listen to his commands; (2) that they could have everything they wanted on their terms, (3) that they could be like God themselves. That is very similar to what we see going on in our world right now and it is a real temptation. Why should we have to obey commandments? We don’t like being told we have to obey anyone and yet the word obey literally means ‘to listen intently’ (from the Latin, ‘ob audire’). And if you think about it, it says that Jesus was obedient to the Father. Jesus was equal to the Father, but Jesus was also obedient to him. We are being called to listen intently to what God tells us, to acknowledge that we are God’s creation and that we must obey—listen intently—to what He tells us if we are to find the path to happiness.
The most important preparation we can make for Christmas is the interior preparation, the change of heart, the confession of sins. And yes, most of us don’t want to have to confess our sins. We think we shouldn’t have to, but this is what God asks us to do and if God asks us to do it, it is for our benefit. Deciding that I don’t need to confess is saying, ‘God, I don’t need your gift and I don’t need to listen to what you ask of me.’ God has given us the gift of confession, through his priests, in order to help us and heal us. It is one of the sacraments of healing.
What a shame it would be to die and come before God and then realize that He had given us this gift of his forgiveness and we ignored it, telling ourselves we knew better. When we die we will be shown the good and bad we have done, except for the sins we have confessed, which are blotted out by the power of the Holy Spirit in confession. It is his gift to us.
The celebration of Christmas is meaningless if we skip the kind of preparation that God asks us to make and sadly for many people it has become meaningless. It doesn’t have to be meaningless, because it is the celebration of something very wonderful, the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus—the second person of the Holy Trinity—taking on human flesh, in order to sacrifice himself in atonement for our sins, so that we could go to heaven when we die. God created us for paradise. We lost it, by rejecting God’s word, but God won it back for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. No wonder the celebration of Christmas is such a great event.
As always, the Lord invites us to listen to him and follow him. He will never force us:
I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in and sit down to eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20)
Those words are from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible and this message is repeated all through the Bible in different ways. The Lord wants to be at the centre of what we do, but we are the only ones who can allow that to happen.
‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand.’