Second Sunday of Advent
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
December 6, 2020
Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God
Let me first call attention to the opening words of Mark’s Gospel, just proclaimed, a line in Scripture that we can so easily overlook; it reads: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” At first glance, we might think that this is just a subtitle or a way of getting started, words beyond which we quickly move so as to get to the substance of the text. But in this Advent season, this season of new beginnings and fresh hope, I would invite you to reflect with me for a moment on the importance of these words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
When St. Mark speaks of the “beginning” of his Gospel, he does not merely mean to introduce its first paragraph. Rather, he is about to tell us of “a new beginning, a new work of God as original and stupendous as the creation of the universe” (M. Healy, Mark, Catholic Commentary, p. 29). The word “gospel” means “good news” and by that phrase St. Mark means, not merely a fortunate turn of events, but rather the glad tidings “that God is coming to save his people” (Ibid). Mark is presenting the gospel as ‘something to be preached and believed in’, as something “more valuable than life itself” (Ibid).
For, this gospel is the good news, the glad tidings of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Already, in the first line of his gospel, St. Mark proclaims with joy that Jesus is both the longed-for Messiah and uniquely the Son of God. In the same breath, Mark invites us to join with the disciples in gradually discovering who Jesus truly is, so that we too might believe and become the Lord’s disciples. Thus, in opening words of Mark’s Gospel we find the key to Advent joy: the rediscovery of the good news of Jesus, our Savior and our Lord, coupled with a longing for Jesus to come into our hearts each day, and then, to come again in glory to make all things new, and to do so in his own good time, on that day when he sees fit (Cf. 2nd reading, 2 Pet. 3:8).
This year, with pre-Christmas events at a minimum, we have a graced opportunity to celebrate the season of Advent, perhaps as never before: to repent of our sins, to welcome the Lord anew into our hearts and homes, and to reignite our longing for the Lord’s presence in our daily lives, at the end of our life, and at the consummation of the world.
To help us do just that, to help us attain true Advent joy in a difficult time, our readings put us in touch with the prophet Isaiah and with John the Baptist.
Isaiah and John the Baptist
Isaiah prophesied at a tragic time in Israel’s history, the time of the Babylonian exile. In today’s first reading, Isaiah spoke words of comfort and consolation to a people scattered and humiliated by a foreign power. To them Isaiah speaks of a time of forgiveness and a season of restoration. He says, “In the desert, prepare a way of the Lord. Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). With a joy he cannot contain, Isaiah thus announces that Israel’s exile is at an end, and that the Lord will remove every obstacle to the restoration of God’s People.
In John the Baptist, we see Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled beyond all expectations. As Isaiah saw from afar, John the Baptist is a new herald, crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Now, John the Baptist is calling on us to remove every obstacle from our hearts, so that each day we may welcome anew the Christ who was born to save us.
Perhaps, however, the challenge of John the Baptist does not seem like ‘good news’. After all, he is calling on us to repent of our sins, to undergo a metanoia, a profound change of mind and heart in which we acknowledge our sins and turn back to the Lord in humble repentance. We may ask, “Doesn’t this sound more like Lent than Advent?” However, if you have ever witnessed a conversion or have experienced a conversion, then you know why John the Baptist’s prophetic words are indeed good news. Clearing our hearts of sin, experiencing the forgiveness of our sins, sensing newfound freedom from vices that held us captive–there is no joy quite like it! Indeed, the joy of the Israelites upon their return from exile stands as a symbol of the joy we experience when we return to God from the alienation of sin. After all, repentance and conversion correspond to the deep longings of our hearts to share God’s friendship and love and to reflect his goodness in our lives.
As if to underline this truth, John the Baptist preaches in the desert and conducts a baptism of repentance in the Jordan, and the meaning is clear. Just as God formed the Israelites in the desert and led them across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, so too John the Baptist is re-forming the people by his preaching in the desert, and, immersing them in the Jordan, he leads them to the Promised Land, that is to say, he is leading them to Jesus. This, my friends, is the path to Advent joy and we can find it by confessing our sins and by receiving absolution, forgiveness, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
“Like a Thief in the Night”
Before I conclude, let me add one more point, and it is this. All of us have experienced Advent many times, some of us more than others. Often, we have listened to the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist and perhaps their prophetic words stirred our souls for a time, but then we went back to “business as usual” – including the same old faults and sins. Is there a chance that in Advent 2020, things might be different?
The answer is “yes”, but only if we take to heart the prophetic message of St. Peter in our second reading. In that reading, Peter consoles us with the truth that God is kind and patient, that he delays in coming because he wants no one to perish, but rather he wants all to come to repentance and salvation (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9). All of us have experienced the continual patience and mercy of God as we struggle with our flawed and sinful humanity. How grateful we are that God deals so kindly with us. Yet, St. Peter, echoing the words of Jesus himself, seeks to wake us up, to make us keenly aware that must not waste the opportunities the Lord gives us to reform and repent, to “conduct ourselves in holiness and devotion” (2 Pet. 3:11), “without spot or blemish [coming] before him, at peace” (2 Pet. 3:14). For, as he says, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief” in the night” (2 Pet. 3:10), on a day we do not expect and at a time not of our choosing. On that day, all will be revealed. Accountability and transparency will truly have their day!
The Nature of Advent Joy
Clearly, the joy of Advent is not a superficial, tinselly kind of joy, the kind of joy that is peddled far and wide, even during a pandemic. Rather, the authentic joy of Advent, a joy that flows from repentance, and from a life lived in accord with the saving will of God…that is an enduring joy, a sturdy joy, the only joy that stands the test of time, and sees us through the difficult days through which we are passing.
My prayer is that your hearts will be filled with hope and expectation, that hope which does “not disappoint”, for indeed, in this holy season of Advent ‘the love of God is being poured into our hearts abundantly’ (Cf. Rom. 5:5), “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” May God bless you and keep you always in his love!