ADVENT - FOURTH SUNDAY
Gospel – Luke 03:01-06
The Church, my brethren, would not have the birthday of our Lord Jesus come upon us unawares. He is too constantly in her mind, too close to her heart, that she should omit to think about His coming even before the day on which His coming is to be celebrated. And, accordingly, she has set aside the Advent, to the last Sunday of which we have now arrived, in order that her children should set their hands diligently to the great and necessary work of “Preparing the way of the Lord and making straight His paths.” And it must have struck you that in the public service of the Church, during those days of preparation, the figure of John the Baptist – that saint who stands, as it were, between the Old and New Testament, bright with the reflected glories of both – is brought prominently forward. Accordingly, on this Christmas Eve – when we are preparing, as it were, to look upon the Infant Jesus in His mother’s arms to feast our eyes and fill our hearts with the sights of gladness and the sounds of joy, that many a king had longed to see and had not seen, to hear, and had not heard, and which many a prophet had seen brightening in the future from the mountain-tops of vision – I do not think I can better occupy the short time I shall speak to you than by putting before you, though in the merest outline, the life, and the office, and the preaching of St. John the Baptist. The child of so great a destiny – the child who was to unite and gather up in his single self the gifts and the holiness of a long line of prophets – the living link who was immediately to connect the Incarnation of our Lord with that bright line of prophecy that ran back like a line of light flashing athwart the gloom of the world’s sad history, back to the word of consolation that had dropped from the lips of God upon the bruised heart of the world’s first mother: “That One should be born of her Who would crush the serpent’s head.” It was naturally to be expected that the beginning of the life of such a child should be surrounded by supernatural signs, and that miracles should crown his very cradle. And it was even so. First – his very conception was miraculous. He had been given to his mother at a period of her life when, according to human possibilities, she might never hope to look upon a child of her womb. An angel had announced to Zachary the coming of the child. The name of Jon had been selected for him in the very council of heaven. Nay; before he had even been born, Mary, having herself conceived of the Holy Spirit, had brought Jesus to visit his mother, Elizabeth, and at the blessed sound of Mary’s voice, John had been washed from the stain of original sin, and had leaped with joy at the recovered freedom of a child of God. But when this child of miracle had grown a little, he began to give token that a life had been marked out for him far different from the ordinary life of boyhood and of youth. Not for him a father’s care and a mother’s watchful love and the comfort of a home, and the companionship of children like himself. No ; called by God, he went forth, a boy, alone into the wilderness, and, clothed wit the skins of beasts, and eating only the scanty and precarious food that wilderness could supply, he commenced and carried on that course of austerity that made his childhood saintly, his boyhood a marvel, his youth a long and lonely martyrdom; and so he prepared himself for the office for which God had destined him. Was all this preparation needed? Surely, we shall confess that no preparation could be too careful for such an office – an office that was no less than this, to be the immediate precursor of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But there was another reason for the austerities that he practiced. What was the message he had to announce? This – “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.: And how did he preface the announcement? With these two words: “Do penance.” He preached the Baptism of Penance to the remission of sins. It was meet, then, that the preacher of penance should be himself, not properly speaking, a penitent, for by no actual sin had he ever been defiled; but, should give in his own person a signal illustration of the penance and the mortification what were then, that are now, and that shall ever be, the very best – nay, in most cases, the only proper preparation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I also, as the minister of God and of His Church, I also say to you – “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It is in the midst of you. Jesus is for you no mere name in a history that is past. He is your God; and He is here in the midst of you as surely as He was once in Mary’s arms, as surely as He is now at God’s right hand. And, asking you to prepare for His coming, I can give no other counsel than this: “Do penance.” I can suggest no remedy for sin but the baptism of penance. There is one, just one obstacle to the coming of our Lord into your hearts, and that one obstacle is mortal sin. Mortal sin is the one mountain that His sacred feet will never cross. That mountain must be laid low and leveled to the dust by the secret, but sure work that is done in the Sacrament of Penance.
My brethren, there is not one here who on tomorrow will not say, and have said to him, “A happy Christmas.” Well, how think you can Christmas be happy with mortal sin upon the conscience, and the sword of God’s doom and the flame of His eternal wrath waiting for the guilty soul?
Ah, if anyone here will have a happy Christmas it can only be because, by sincere repentance – by bringing forth fruits worthy of penance, by making firm resolutions to avoid sin and the occasions of sin, by doing all this – he shall have laid low the mountains, and make smooth the rough places that lay between him and his Lord.