The article of the month

Lectio Divina by Fr. Sebastian White, o.p.

A Prayerful Reading of Sacred Scripture

The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Second Sunday of Advent
Matthew 3:1-12

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert,/ ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,/ make straight his paths’” (3:1-3).

In those days: Saint Matthew is not telling a “once upon a time” fairy tale but a true story. The desert: repentance brings hope to the dry and seemingly barren areas of our life. We easily become discouraged by our sins and weaknesses, yet those are precisely the places we must ask the Lord to enter. “Wait there for the One who will save you. However much the storm of battles may assail you, however much you may feel the lack even of sustenance in the desert [he] will feed you more abundantly with manna, that is, the bread of angels” (Blessed Guerric of Igny). We prepare the way of the Lord not by trying to prove our worthiness but through humility and prayer; we make straight his paths by saying “You must increase, I must decrease.”

John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins (3:4-6).

John’s penitential life reveals his sincerity; he practices what he preaches. The virtue of penance (or penitence) leads us to detest sin and desire to please God, who is worthy of all our love. It is how we make satisfaction and reparation, “filling up” the sufferings of Christ in our own life (Col 1:24). “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Acknowledged their sins: Knowing and confessing our sins is a grace. “God’s greatest pleasure is to pardon us. The good Lord is more eager to pardon a repentant sinner than a mother to rescue her child from a fire” (Saint John Vianney).

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:7-10).

Why be so harsh if the Pharisees and Sadducees are coming to John’s baptism? Isn’t this a good thing? They do not come in a true spirit of repentance, but in a public show of self-righteousness. How do we, for our part, ensure that we receive the sacraments—especially the Eucharist—with the right disposition? The Church herself supplies the words: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Our confidence in every sacrament arises from faith in Christ’s power. Every tree that does not bear good fruit: a tree will bear good fruit as long as its roots remain in rich soil. Consider Luke 13:6-9: the gardener himself declares he will do the work of cultivating and fertilizing to make the tree bear fruit. Even if we fall, Jesus does not abandon us: humility and contrition keep us firm in God’s love. “Much more pleasing to God is a fervent life after sin than innocence sluggish in its security” (Saint Gregory the Great).

“I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:11-12).

John’s baptism inspired repentance and merely pointed to Christ’s baptism—the Church’s baptism—which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, forgives sins and fills us with divine life. Winnowing fan: an instrument for removing impurities so that only pure wheat remains. Jesus frees us from sin, purifying our hearts so we can become like the pure wheat consecrated on the altar. He “bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world” (2 Pt 1:4). We “become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). A prayer before Mass by Archbishop Fulton Sheen: “Here is my body. Take it. Here is my blood. Take it. Here is my soul, my will, my energy, my strength, my property, my wealth—all that I have. It is yours. Take it! Consecrate it! Offer it with yourself to the heavenly Father…. Consecrate these trials of my life which would go unrewarded unless united with you; transubstantiate me so that like bread which is now your Body, and wine which is now your Blood, I too may be wholly yours…. My station in life, my routine duties, my work, my family—all these are but the species of my life which may remain unchanged; but the substance of my life, my soul, my mind, my will, my heart—transubstantiate them, transform them wholly into your service, so that through me all may know how sweet is the love of Christ. Amen.”