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December 10, 2017 - Conversion, Comfort, and Joy

Second Sunday of Advent

Scripture Readings

When we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, one of the first things we do is examine our consciences and seek God’s mercy. “Kyrie Eleison! Christe Eleison! Kyrie Eleison!” And then the celebrants announces the absolution, saying, “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life!” The congregation responds with a resounding, “Amen!” And then community does something special. We break out into the Gloria! “Glory to God in the highest,” we sing, “and peace to his people on earth!” The reason is simple. The experience of God mercy and forgiveness leads us to rejoicing! One moment the mood is sorrow for sin and the next moment the mood changes to praise! This contrast of moods is also the best way to explain the spirit of Advent. All of Advent we prepare our lives for Christ. And then at Christmas, we break forth singing “Glory to God in the highest!” 

Today’s readings present a similar contrast. The first reading from Isaiah is very comforting and consoling. If you remember my homily last week, I referred to the situation of the exiled people of Israel in Babylon. Today’s reading announces the end of that seventy-year exile. The gospel reading, on the other hand, is a far cry from the consolation of the first reading. Mark challenges more than he comforts. His message today is a call to conversion. John the Baptist, the prophet dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, living on locusts and wild honey, “appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The contrast between the two readings is just like the Eucharist. It provides a great commentary on the justice and mercy of God on the one hand, and Christmas comfort and joy on the other. 

I would like to address this contrast in my homily today. In my three points let me talk about both the comfort that God offers and the mercy that we need to access. 

  1. The Justice and the Mercy of God. Much has been written about the justice and the mercy of God. We know that God is just. If God was not just then the entire foundation of human moral life would collapse. There would no expectation for us to act in righteousness because it would not matter. God’s justice gives us the confidence that we will be treated with righteousness. But God is also merciful. Here is what I believe. I believe that God acts justly but God’s final act is mercy. The story of the exile addresses precisely the point. In today’s first reading, God says, “Comfort, give comfort to my people…, speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (Is 40:1). This comfort comes after Isaiah announces that Israel’s guilt is expiated, that she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins” (Is 40:2). The exile was God’s justice but the exile ended with an act of God’s mercy. God is just but God’s final act always, always, is mercy. This must give us great hope. 
  1. The Call to Conversion. As real and final is God’s mercy, so real and final is the call to conversion. It is important for us to remember that the exile was preceded by relentless call to conversion. The entire prophetic tradition was necessitated by the need for conversion. While the lack of conversion brought about the exile, the acknowledge of sin made possible the experience of God’s mercy. The common phrase, in today’s first reading and the gospel reading is, “In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (Is 40:3,  Mk 1:3). This is a call for conversion. Advent is a time for conversion. We are sinful people. We have sinned. Today, then, we examine our lives to see where we need to make a highway for our God? The comfort of the coming of Christ awaits us! Of course, like Israel we can choose not to heed the call to conversion. On the other hand, the mercy, the comfort, the consolation of God awaits us if we do acknowledge our sins and seek conversion.
  1. Let Joy Come from the Right Place. Unlike Lent, the times before and after Christmas are associated with a certain amount of playfulness, a certain amount of frivolousness, a certain amount of careless gaiety.  At the end if all, the feasting, the gifts, and family enjoyment dominate our celebrations. And rightly so! The coming of Christ calls for great rejoicing. The experience of redemption calls for feasting and family merriment. Just like at mass, conversion leads to joy! There is always that danger, though - that our feasting and merriment are empty celebrations; that our celebrations originate not from an experience of redemption; that our joy is devoid of conversion. Every Advent, we cease singing the Gloria. We will wait for the Mass of the Nativity to break the silence. My prayer for each one of us that at Christmas mass, when we join in the angels in their singing, “Glory to God in the highest,” that it might come from our deepest experience of the mercy of God.   

- Fr. Satish Joseph