Sunday Reflections

The beauty of Christmas shines through in the sharing of small gestures of genuine love. It is not alienating, it is not superficial, it is not evasive

Pope Francis

Second Sunday of Advent

The Lord has done great things for us

Today, we continue our journey “in the expectation of His coming”. The readings and liturgical prayers of this second Sunday of Advent provide some insights into Christian hope and encourage us to renew our commitment in this season of Advent. In this context, we are presented with someone whose way of life and message fervently prepared for the coming of the Lord. This is John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, “prophet of the Most High” (Lk 1:76) whom the evangelist John called “a man sent from God” (cf. Jn 1:6). He is the missionary, the one sent by God to testify to the Light that is Christ Jesus, Word made man (cf. Jn 1:7-8). He is someone that today’s missionary disciples of Christ can emulate as they bear witness to Christ and prepare the way of the Lord.

In the short passage of the today’s Gospel, the characteristics of the “missionary” John the Baptist can be grasped through three key expressions: “the word of God came to John,” “John went throughout the whole region,” and “proclaiming a baptism of repentance” (Lk 3:2b-3).

1. “The word of God came to John.” The beginning of John the Baptist’s activities is presented by Luke in a very solemn way. God, himself, gives John a mandate to act: “The word of God came [literally happened] to John.” This is the expression found in the account of the vocation of prophets like Jeremiah (cf. Jer 1:2, and even verbatim in the Greek text of the LXX of Jer 1:1) and Ezekiel (cf. Ez 1:3). It is almost the formula of the prophetic investiture: The word of God [/of Lord] was [/happened/came to] on the prophet and sent him to begin to announce to the peoples what he had heard from God. Every prophet of God is therefore His special one sent to the people to always speak in the name of God and of the things, God asks him to say! He is the missionary of God. So it was with John the Baptist. He is solemnly presented as the prophet elected in the fulfillment of history. Later, he will be praised by Jesus himself as “among those born of women, no one is greater than John,” “more than a prophet,” “messenger” of God (cf. Lk 7:27-28; Mt 11:9-11). The particular mention of the “desert” as a place of vocation and the beginning of the Baptist’s activity is not just to mark the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic announcement (cf. Lk 3:4; Is 40:3) or to recall the experience of exodus. It makes us imagine a general spiritual picture of the time and to perceive a connection between the Baptist’s entry on the scene and the eschatological renewal of the people. God’s prophet-missionary almost always acts in the desert, even when he does so in a overcrowded city such as Shanghai, New Delhi, Lagos, or Sao Paulo! He is not particularly intimidated or deterred by this fact, because he knows that he is there not of his own will but for a mission entrusted to him by the Word of God!

2.John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan.” Although the original Greek verb means “came”, its English translation with “went throughout” gives emphasis to the characteristic of the Baptist’s activities with the specific description of the extent of his ministry: “whole region of the Jordan,” underlining precisely the word “whole.” We know that the Baptist in fact carries out his activity around the Jordan River, where he could administer baptism by immersion in water. There are no further linguistic clues or clearer words. Therefore, it seems to us that here Saint Luke wanted to describe the action of the Baptist as that of an itinerant, almost on the model of Jesus (cf. Mk 1:39; Mt 4:23) and His disciples, who, sent by God to mission, will go throughout all towns and places to prepare the visit of their Master (cf. Lk 10:1).

Luke’s vision of the Baptist’s itinerancy is highly suggestive and enlightening from a missionary perspective. Every prophet-missionary of God is called to be dynamic: never to remain static. He is called to “go throughout”, to always go where the Word of God sends him. Just as John the Baptist has accomplished his “going out” and his continuous going throughout the whole region to prepare “the way of the Lord” for the local people, every Christian is called to go out and become the missionary forerunner of Christ everywhere (even outside his native country!), and especially in this waiting time for the Lord’s coming. In this way, let us help each other, in all places where we are, to better prepare ourselves to welcome Christ when He comes.

3. [John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,] proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The presentation of John the Baptist’s actions on the Christian model reaches its climax here. Indeed, his “proclaiming” a baptism of repentance (Lk 3:3) is echoed in the description of the activities of Jesus and His apostles. The proof is that, afterwards, Saint Luke did not hesitate to summarize all the actions of John the Baptist with a meaningful phrase: “Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people” (Lk 3:18). “Preaching” and “proclaiming good news (= evangelizing)” are the actions of Christ and of His disciples sent by Him (cf. Lk 4:18-19; Mk 1:14-15; Mt 4:23). Even the content of the proclaiming and his “preaching”, which urges repentance (metanoia) for the forgiveness of sins, resembles that proclaimed by Christ (cf. Lk 5:32; Mk 1:15) and subsequently by the apostles (cf. Acts 2:38). The only difference is that the Jesus insisted on the proper realization of the Kingdom of God, and on the gift of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Baptist, in Luke, reveals himself to be the only prophet of God who is at the same time already a “Christian” missionary. From his “cry” every Christian missionary of today will now be able to see him as a useful model for his own life and mission.

John the Baptist’s message, while emphasizing the need for a serious preparation for the Lord, who will surely come to judge the world, is essentially a message of hope. This message, moreover, is underlined in all the prophets of the Old Testament, in particular, in the passage from Baruch, chosen for the first reading. Baruch invites Jerusalem to take off the robe of mourning and misery to welcome the God who “is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, / with his mercy and justice for company.” Saint Luke the evangelist underlines this with the quotation on the special fulfillment of the ancient oracles of the prophet Isaiah with the apex in the final statement that we heard in this Sunday’s Gospel: “all flesh [sarx] shall see the salvation of God” (Lk 3:6; cf. Is 40:5). This affirmation emphasizes the universalism of divine grace, a theme so dear to St. Luke. Furthermore, it is linked to the person of Jesus who was revealed as the “salvation of God” (cf. Lk 2:30; and Acts 28:28).

Referring to the coming of Jesus, salvation of God, a serious commitment of interior and exterior preparation is certainly required, as recalled by the evocative images of the preparation of the “way” corresponding to concrete moral and social actions. This is made explicit by the Baptist himself in the next passage of Luke’s Gospel that we will meditate on next Sunday. For the moment, what requires our attention is the peculiar form of the sentences without the indication of the protagonist: “Every valley shall be filled, / and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” Who will do these things? Obviously, from the preceding imperative “make straight his paths” people can legitimately be seen as those who perform these actions. However, the use of verbs in the passive form implies God as the implicit agent. Hence under divine action, rather than human work, “The winding roads shall be made straight, / and the rough ways made smooth,” as confirmed by the prophet Baruch in the first reading: “For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, / and that the age-old depths and gorges / be filled to level ground.” The miracle of the straightened and leveled ways, of the “highways” in the desert, belongs above all to the grace of God, who in any case asks for the collaboration of man with an open heart to welcome Him.

And this is the message, indeed the good news, the Gospel, to be announced by the Baptist together with all the prophets sent by Lord. This will also be the message that every Christian, missionary prophet of Christ, will make to resound even now, especially in today’s world, full of winding and rough ways, ravines, mountains, hills. As Pope Francis reminds us, this is not the time to condemn, but to proclaim always and to everybody “a year of grace” (Lk 4:19) from the “great and merciful” God. This is despite, and perhaps precisely because, this “crooked and perverse generation” (Phil 2:15) continues to live as if God did not exist. After all, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son […] God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (Jn 3:16-17). And all of us, Christians, are sent by Christ as the Father had sent Him. Let us, therefore, proclaim again and again, as the Forerunner of Christ, without weariness, the message of hope from God of love and mercy who is coming. Let us announce it first to ourselves and then to others, so that we can all prepare ourselves in the best way to welcome the Lord, who comes with His grace.

Useful insights:

“We will entrust the life of the Church, all humanity, and the entire cosmos to the Lordship of Christ, asking him to pour out his mercy upon us like the morning dew, so that everyone may work together to build a brighter future. How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God! May the balm of mercy reach everyone, both believers and those far away, as a sign that the Kingdom of God is already present in our midst!” (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, n. 5)

“The Church is commissioned to announce the mercy of God, the beating heart of the Gospel, which in its own way must penetrate the heart and mind of every person. The Spouse of Christ must pattern her behaviour after the Son of God who went out to everyone without exception. In the present day, as the Church is charged with the task of the new evangelization, the theme of mercy needs to be proposed again and again with new enthusiasm and renewed pastoral action. It is absolutely essential for the Church and for the credibility of her message that she herself live and testify to mercy. Her language and her gestures must transmit mercy, so as to touch the hearts of all people and inspire them once more to find the road that leads to the Father” (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, n. 12)

“The first mission […] was entrusted by the Eternal Father to His only-begotten Son when He sent Him from Heaven to redeem the world. Our Lord always speaks of Himself as of one sent by the Father.” (P. Manna, The Conversion of the Pagan World. A Treatise upon Catholic Foreign Missions, translated and adapted from the Italian of rev. Paolo Manna, M. Ap. by rev. Joseph F. McGlinchey, d.d., Boston, Society for the propagation of the Faith 1921, pp. 3-4)

First Sunday of Advent

“Strengthen and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus”

Jer 33:14-16 • Ps 25:1-10 • 1Thes 3:9-13 • Lk 21:25-36

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, my God, in you I trust

1. The exhortation of Saint Paul the apostle in the second reading summarizes well the commitment of the faithful in this time of expectation of the coming of the Lord: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all […], so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones” (1Thes 3:12-13). These are the words in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. This letter, in the opinion shared by exegetes, is presented as the first writing of the New Testament dated in the 50’s, that is to say scarcely twenty years after Christ’s departure. The expectation therefore of the Lord’s return was very high among the first Christians, especially among those in Thessalonica, north of Greece, one of the first European cities evangelized by Paul with his companions on his first missionary journey. They were all zealous in the hope of the final salvation that will come with the return of Jesus at the end of the world, as He Himself had promised according to what is also read in today’s Gospel (cf. Lk 21:27).

This strong expectation can still be there today, a call and a teaching on a timeless truth: there will be the end of everything and the Lord Jesus will come. For us Christians of the Third Millennium, the fundamental question is: “Do we still await the coming of the Lord with fervor? Or in general are we still waiting for Him? Do we sometimes still look at Heaven to see Jesus’ arrival on the clouds?” Given that, so far, His second coming has not yet come true, we certainly do not lack patience after two thousand years of waiting! Indeed, perhaps we have reached the point of not thinking about it anymore, dealing only with the things of this world. “In the meantime, he will come!” – someone says – “and when? Only God knows, and so I keep doing my own thing!” Perhaps we lack a little nostalgia for the presence of the Lord Jesus, a state of mind that His first apostles, those sent- missionaries, intensely experienced to the point of it rubbing off onto their listeners. It is time to recover this healthy nostalgia for the Lord that comes from the deep friendship with Him. The point is crucial for the mission. Only the Christian, who always carries Jesus in his heart, burns with the desire to meet Him and thus yearns for His promised coming. And only that Christian feels within the urge to share this sweet friendship with Christ with others. That Christian becomes a missionary of Christ by nature.

2. The question for us today remains the same: “You who call yourself a Christian and are a disciple of Christ, do you yearn for that final redemption that He brings?” For those who do not feel anything like “a dead man walking,” the good Lord also leaves some admonitions in the Gospel with a direct but benevolent tone, followed by a concrete recommendation.

First, the warning: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise” (Lk 21:34). It is a warning to those who do not live in expectation! Beware of hearts drowsy from worldly matters: “from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” The first two vices listed are often denounced in biblical teaching (cf. Rom 13:13; Gal 5:21; also Is 24:20 LXX), instead the “anxieties of daily life” are part of the things that, according to the explanation of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke prevent the seeds, fallen among the thorns, from growing fully (cf. Lk 8:14). All three together describe a practical life without God, as in the days of Noah and Lot, when « they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building » (cf. Lk 17:26-30).

The exhortation then follows. Jesus indicates the medicine against the lukewarmness of a heart tired of waiting for the things of the Lord and His kingdom: “Be vigilant at all times and pray” (Lk 21:36). The exhortation reflects the words of Jesus on the need to be watchful in Mk 13:33, and that addressed directly to St. Peter the Apostle: “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test” (Mk 14:38; cf. v. 35). “To watch and pray” go together and are interchangeable: to watch means to pray and vice versa. The distinctive detail in Jesus’ admonition in Lk is the insistence on the time of prayer/vigil: “at all times”, as already seen elsewhere in the Third Gospel (cf. Lk 18:1,7-8). St. Paul, therefore, will recommend to the Thessalonians who were fervently awaiting the Lord’s return: “Pray without ceasing” (1Thes 5:17). And he will also repeat to the Romans: “Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer” (Rom 12:12).

3. Therefore, the constant and unceasing prayer, at all times, becomes a fundamental and indispensable means to be discovered in order to renew the zeal of life, waiting for the Lord’s arrival. This is true for every Christian, baptized, missionary. In this regard, we should remember the memorable words of Pope Francis in the video message on the occasion of the official opening of the General Assembly of the Pontifical Mission Societies (28/5/2018): “Prayer is the first ‘missionary work’ — the first! — that every Christian can and must do. It is also the most effective, even if this cannot be measured.”

With unceasing and ardent prayer for the coming of the Kingdom, every Christian becomes a missionary, even though not everyone has the opportunity to go to a foreign land to proclaim the Gospel (as in the case of St. Therese of Lisieux, patroness of the missions!). With constant and fervent prayer, every missionary fulfills even more the mission of Christ, who Himself constantly prayed in communion with God the Father. The culmination of the prayer vigils is precisely the Eucharistic celebration which, as explained, is missionary by nature, because in it the mission of Christ is mystically fulfilled in the compassionate offering of His body and blood and the mission of the Christians continues, sent by Christ Himself and His Church.

Why then, especially during the period of Advent, do we not make prayers and prayer vigils more often for the missions and the Mission of the Church? Such acts will help us to be vigilant, indeed, fervent in waiting, to strengthen hearts; they will remind us of the duty to walk in holiness towards “that day” of final salvation with the Lord; and they will kindle the enthusiasm of witnessing the dead and risen Christ to all, donec veniat “until He comes.” Amen. Maranathà!

Useful insights:

“The Eucharist itself which is about to be celebrated is, of course, the most intense preparation the community has for the Lord’s coming, for it is itself his coming. In the preface that begins the Eucharistic Prayer on this Sunday, the community presents itself before God as ‘we who watch.’ We who watch ask that already today we may sing the hymn of all the angels: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.’ In proclaiming the Mystery of Faith we express the same spirit of watching: ‘When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord, until you come again.’ In the Eucharistic Prayer the heavens are rent open and God comes down. In holy Communion the heavens are rent open and God comes down. The one whose body and Blood we receive today is the Son of Man who will come in a cloud with power and great glory. With his grace delivered in holy Communion it may be hoped that each one of us can exclaim, ‘I will stand erect and raise my head, because my redemption is at hand.’” (Homiletic Directory, n. 86)

“He ‘prays without ceasing’ who unites prayer to works and good works to prayer (Origen, De orat. 12: PG 11, 452c.).” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2745)

“It is possible to offer fervent prayer even while walking in public or strolling alone, or seated in your shop,… while buying or selling,… or even while cooking (St. John Chrysostom, Ecloga de oratione 2: PG 63, 585).” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2743)

“God tells us through the mouth of the missionary who prays.” (PAOLO MANNA, Virtù Apostoliche, Milan 1944, p. 197)

The Word Exposed with Cardinal Tagle