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John the Baptist is our Advent Teacher on the Way of Happiness

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Advent is a season when we are invited to clear away all that entangles us and open a space in our hearts, our homes, our relationships and our lives, for the Lord Jesus.

One of my favorite readings in the Liturgy if the Hours during Advent is an Advent sermon given by St. Bernard of Clairveaux.

He reminds us of all the Lord’s comings. He then situates us where we live our daily lives, on the road of continual conversion, the heart of the Christian vocation:

We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible while the other two are visible. In the first coming He was seen on earth, dwelling among men; in the final coming “all flesh will see the salvation of our God and they will look upon Him whom they have pierced.

The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved.

In His first coming our Lord came in our flesh and our weakness; in this middle coming He comes in Spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and in majesty.

Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. (St. Bernard of Clairveaux)

We are invited today to reflect on what it means to walk along that road.

The promise of a new beginning is the heart of the message which Christians bring to an age staggering in the existential sadness and fear which has gripped so many in our time.

The Advent candle we light symbolizes Jesus Christ, the True Light which can dispel the dreariness of an age which has all but lost hope and shed light in what so often seems to be a time of darkness.

The message we hear proclaimed reminds us that the Lord is always coming for those who look for Him and make a space in their lives for Him.

The Scriptural texts proclaimed at Mass introduce us to people like John the Baptizer, who embody the call to happiness by preparing the way for all who live between the first and the final coming of Jesus.

The Old and New Testament passages presented in the Divine Liturgy – and in the Liturgy of the Hours – expound upon all the comings that St Bernard proclaimed. .

As I grow older, I love being a Catholic Christian more and more. I remember reading a newspaper article in an airport many years ago in which a priest wrote that Catholicism was religion for the long haul.

I see the truth of that assertion more as the years seem to fly by. Oh, I know that some other Christians see practices such as Advent as empty ritual; and perhaps for some, that is what they have become.

For me, celebrating Advent, indeed all the seasons of the Church year, are continual invitations to living faith, genuine repentance, ongoing conversion and the pursuit of holiness of life – the things that really matter.

The ritual of Catholic Christian life provides a form into which the freshness of the Spirit can be poured again and again.

I remember an old Pentecostal minister once telling me when I was twenty one years old – Son, we get filled with the Spirit, but then we leak. Boy was that guy right!

The familiar patterns and practices of Catholic faith present us with an opportunity for shaping family life, forming customs, and informing a lifestyle which helps us to assimilate the beauty and truth revealed in the comings of the Lord.

They can also help us to break from what can be experienced as the monotony of regular daily life in order to participate in something bigger than ourselves.

They can connect us to the One who always comes to those who are watching and preparing.

They can become, as we used to say more when I was young, occasions of grace.

As my life goes on I need more than ever to hear the clarion call to prepare the way for the Lord.

I need these special times of grace. I need these holy seasons. Unlike my youth when I thought I had it all figured out, I find something quite different has occurred as my hair has turned white (and sparse).

As I continue in my journey of faith. I realize how little I actually do know and how much more conversion I need to get ready for that coming when I will pass from one life to the next.

Advent is a reminder of the road along which we walk this Christian life and vocation. Bernard was right. We live in that intermediate time between the first and the second comings.

We are to be changed by the first – and to prepare ourselves- and the world in which we live- for the second.

This Sunday we are introduced to one of the two main personalities of the Advent season, John the Baptizer. The other is Mary, the Mother of the Lord.

Our image of John is as the austere ascetic, the odd fellow who lived in the desert eating a strange diet and thundering to Israel about repentance.

We forget the happiness that was associated with his birth and the happiness which accompanied his prophetic life and vocation.

Because He focused His entire life on Jesus, he experienced true freedom and happiness.  He is held out to us as an example in Advent to show us the how we can be free and happy as well.

John said YES – to who He was – and to who he was called to become, by responding in faith to his vocation. In doing so, he found true freedom and happiness.

When Our Lady went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, she was carrying the Incarnate Word, Jesus. Elizabeth was carrying John. The Gospel tells us:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for happiness. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” And Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. (Luke 1: 41-47)

Living in his mother’s womb, this last Prophet of the Old Testament and First Prophet of the New Testament responded to the arrival of Jesus the Savior with a dance of Happiness, in the womb.

That happiness continued throughout his life.

St. John records John the Baptizer explaining the reason for his happiness:

The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this happiness of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease. (John 1:29 – 30)

John was a man of happiness because he was a man of true humility!

John understood that life wasn’t all about him. He emptied himself – of himself – willingly. His humility opened up a space within him for true happiness to take root and set him free!

John seems to be a sign of contradiction in an age drunk on self-worship and lost in narcissistic self-absorption. However, he is a road sign for those who hunger for true freedom and happiness.

He points us all to the path to happiness in our own lives, living a lifestyle of self-emptying love.

He must increase and I must decrease. This is the attitude, the disposition, the way of life which leads to becoming the new creation St Paul writes about when he tells the Christians in Corinth “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation”. (2 Cor. 5:17)

John is a man to be imitated this Advent. He is one of our Advent teachers.

We can learn from him how to live our lives as happy penitents; ever aware of our utter dependency on God’s grace at every moment. It is sin which leads us into slavery and takes away our happiness.

Only by being freed from its entanglements can we become truly happy and free. (See, Romans 6: 6, 7 and Gal. 5:1)  John always points to Jesus – in his birth, his pattern of life and his martyr’s death – and he keeps pointing to Jesus from his place in the communion of saints.

We do not hear enough of a fundamental truth of the Christian faith; the Lord desires our happiness. He also wants us to be free. The Apostle Paul proclaimed to the Galatians – It was for freedom that Christ set us free. (Gal 5:1)

Jesus Christ is alive. He has been raised from the dead. He lives in our midst. He walks the dusty streets of our own day and is calling each one of us.

He invites us to choose Him over our own selfish pursuits, and to thereby find happiness and freedom.

In Catholic teaching we speak of receiving the beatific vision when we finally stand in His presence and enter into the fullness of communion.  The word beatitude means happiness! Living in the Lord will make us happy; not only in the life to come, but beginning now.

Too often we associate repentance with some kind of wrong- headed self-hatred. To the contrary, for those who have been schooled in its lessons like John the Baptizer, the way of voluntary penitence and conversion becomes the path to freedom and happiness.

Our Advent teacher, John the Baptizer, knew that the source of true, lasting happiness is Jesus Christ. He calls everyone who will listen to prepare the way for the Lord, in their hearts, their lives, their homes and their world. In both his preaching and his life witness he calls for a total reformation.

In our second reading at Mass, taken from the second letter the Apostle Peter wrote to the persecuted Christians we find an important question for all of us who live during what Bernard called the road of the intermediate comings:

What sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.

Because the Lord is near we must live differently. The way of happiness passes along the path of self-emptying, the way of humility. The Baptizer reminds us that we must decrease so that we can be filled with Jesus, the source of all happiness and the path to freedom.

In the fourth Gospel, the theologian John records the Baptizer explaining the source of his supernatural happiness:

The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this happiness of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease. (John 1:29 – 30)

As we walk through the remaining days of Advent, the two biblical persons held before us in our readings at Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours will be John the Baptizer and Mary.

Mary’s humility brought heaven to earth and earth to heaven.Mary was a woman of deep happiness because she became the habitation of happiness, the first living tabernacle. She overflows with Jesus and imparts happiness to us all.

We call her, among her many other titles of affection, the cause of our Happiness . That is because she bore the One who is the source of our happiness, Jesus Christ, and followed Him as the first disciple.She is now joined with Him in the happiness of heaven.

Today, we are invited to embrace, by grace, the way of humility and find the happiness of heaven – beginning right here, in the real stuff of our daily lives. John is our Advent Teacher.

St. Josemaria Escriva once summed it up well in these few words: I am every day more convinced that happiness in Heaven is for those who know how to be happy on earth. (The Forge, 1005)



 

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