The Second Sunday of Advent
First Reading: Baruch 5:1-9
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 126:1-6
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 3:12-4:2
Gospel: According to St. Luke 3:1-6
Six years have passed since the start of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in December of 2015, and so much has happened in the Church and in the world since then that most of us have at best vague memories of that year-long focus on God’s infinite forgiveness and mercy and our response of prayer and penance. In the mind of Pope Francis the goal of such a jubilee year was the same as the message of St. John the Baptist as described by St. Luke in this Sunday’s Gospel reading:
“John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
In this sentence Luke reminds us of the real spirit not only of that Jubilee, but of the Gospel: personal conversion. How easy is it for us to forget about our repentance and to focus simply on the mercy of God? How easy is it to say that because God’s mercy is infinite and my imperfections are finite that I need never change? How easy is it to believe that God loves me just the way I am, and therefore my path to Heaven is secured?
Certainly, it would be very easy to assume all of these things, especially because there are so many voices – including a few voices in the priesthood and episcopacy – who would lead us to believe that such distortions of the Gospel are the real good news. As the late Monsignor William Smith, professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York, used to say: half-truths are like half-bricks – you can throw them twice as far. Today there is certainly no shortage of social media darlings who are happy to stand at a safe distance and throw half-bricks through the windows of genuine Church teaching.
Any proclamation of God’s mercy that does not include personal conversion is not only a misrepresentation of the Gospel, but it is downright dangerous to the souls of those who are led by such blind guides. Even a cursory look back at the words and deeds of Pope Francis from six years ago shows the obvious link between mercy and penance, including the fact that the Holy Father chose a penance service during Lent to announce this Extraordinary Jubilee.
Lent might be the primary penitential season of the liturgical year, but Advent is also a time when the Church calls all of us to center our focus on repentance and metanoia. Metanoia is a term that means “change of mind,” “change of heart,” or “change of character.” The term’s true meaning is best encapsulated in the experience of St. Paul while on the road to Damascus. With that in mind, the words of St. Paul in this week’s second reading, from the Letter to the Philippians, take on an added poignancy:
“And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
St. Paul experienced the infinite mercy of God when he was knocked down on his way to persecute the Christian community in Damascus, and after this encounter Paul did all that he could to be seen as “pure and blameless” in God’s eyes. His preaching and writings were a constant call to all of his listeners and readers to do the same.
Since Advent is the Church’s time of preparation for the coming forth of the Incarnation at Christmas, it is the perfect time for us to prepare ourselves spiritually, and to do so with St. John the Baptist and St. Paul in mind. Like them, we need to come to the realization that it is only through penance and metanoia that we might worthily accept into our hearts and homes the Incarnate Mercy of God, that newborn Babe Who is the embodiment and manifestation of all that is pure and without blame.
An Advent spent in this sort of preparation, above and beyond any buying of presents or decorating the house and yard, will bear great fruits on Christmas as we celebrate the greatest Jubilee of all.