2nd Sunday of Advent (A) – December 4, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12
Real Relationships Are … Real
I want you to think about the person you miss most in your entire life right now. Who is it? Think of their name. Picture them. Living or deceased.
And maybe the answer to this one is the same, or maybe it’s harder to nail down—but think back to the time when you missed a person more than you have ever missed anyone ever. Maybe that was during a deployment, or a business trip and they left you home with the kids, or when your kids moved away, or whatever it was.
And then remember that feeling of being reunited! Or that desire to be reunited!
This is the stuff that sells like crazy. For one, it’s the basis for every Nicholas Spark’s book and movie. Girl meets boy. Boy falls in love with girl, girl falls in love with boy. But oh no: separation! But they write letters. They call. They text. Their lives are completely and totally preoccupied with this one person. Their greatest desire is to be with them! But plot twist: they lose touch with each other (letters get lost, people think he died in the war, you name it). And the girl finds a new guy. But double plot twist: the original guy comes back! Now she’s so conflicted! The guy fights for the girl’s heart once again. And, in a stunning surprise … they end up together and live happily ever after. Wow. And I know you’re probably thinking, “Man, Fr. Michael, watch Nicholas Sparks movies much?” And all I’m gonna say is that I have five sisters … so stop judging me, ok?
Why does it sell? Because this is the stuff we’re made of. We’re made for relationship. It’s woven into us. Everything clicks when this one in our life is there.
Think of the person you miss most in your entire life. Think of that time you missed that one person more than you have ever missed anyone ever.
My Greatest Fear & My Greatest Hope
But the question, the real question—and I mean this with absolute sincerity—the question is: Is your longing for Christ, your desire for the presence, the person of Christ … would you describe it as anything like that? Because, be honest, probably not.
I spoke last week a little about how we can often describe our faith as “going to church.” And fair enough: for many of us, we were taught that being Catholic means you “go to church” on Sunday. And that’s an incredibly crucial part of it! Don’t hear what I’m not saying.
But, I’m curious: how many of us here would describe our faith as an intense longing for the presence, the person of Christ? How many of us would talk about Christ like we would talk about the person we miss most, the time we missed that person more than anyone ever?
My greatest fear—my greatest fear is that for many of us, Jesus Christ is just a nice memory or a myth, a guy that lived 2,000 years ago and is now apparently far away ascended into heaven, and is unconcerned with my life, except for judging my every action and trying to figure out if he’s going to send me to hell or let me into heaven. My fear is that we describe this as just “going to church.” And that if I asked you why you go to church, you would say, “Because you’re supposed to.” And if I asked what happens if you don’t, you would say something about hell.
My greatest hope—if that’s my greatest fear, my greatest hope is that you would encounter Jesus Christ as a real person, alive, present, and active in your life! Like the apostles, like Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalen…that you would encounter him, and that this relationship would change everything in your life! And that all of this would become an expression of your longing for him.
I’ve told you the story of my journey of faith: how I was a good little Catholic boy, following all the rules, trying not to go to hell, doing my duty, living a very duty-bound Catholicism, even going to seminary because I felt I had a moral obligation to respond to God’s call. And I’ve shared how living like that tore me apart! Sure: on the outside, it all looked “right.” But there were huge tensions. And long story short, it was because my faith had never reached the level of a real, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ I had encountered.
That’s why the most important question I’ve ever been asked, the question that changed my life: “How real is the person, the presence of Christ to me?” This is the question each one of us needs to ask ourselves this Advent. We need to. “How real is the person, the presence of Christ to me?” Because if we don’t, this just becomes ideas and ideologies and strange religious customs—which are true, they’re true! But just ideas and ideologies and customs that have no ability to affect our life in any real way. “How real is the person, the presence of Christ to me?”
Let’s Learn Greek: Autobasileia
The reason I bring all this up (aside from the fact that it’s constantly on my mind), is that this is what our readings are calling to our attention, and what John the Baptist is explicitly pointing to. The Advent season is dominated by the figure of John the Baptist. He is the precursor, the one preparing the way for the coming Messiah, the one announcing his arrival.
And what are the first words out of John the Baptist’s mouth? “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Uhm, what? Why are we reading this in Advent? Shouldn’t he say, “Get excited! Bake cookies, wrap presents, clean your house: my cousin Jesus is coming!”? No.
As the Father’s of the Church point out, Jesus is the kingdom. The kingdom isn’t some sociopolitical something, or the pope being in charge of nuclear launch codes, or enshrining the Ten Commandments in the constitution of every country, or Christian values dominating the law. As the Father’s of the Church point out, the kingdom is Jesus. There’s a special word for this. And since I’m a nerd, I know it. And so we’re all going to be nerds together. The word is autobasileia. That’s two Greek words smushed into one. “Auto,” meaning “itself.” And “basileia,” meaning “kingdom” (think basilica). Autobasileia (n.b., coined by Origen of Alexandria). Jesus is autobasileia, the Kingdom itself, the Kingdom-in-person.
The Kingdom of God is found in Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God comes through our relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is autobasileia. John the Baptist isn’t pointing to a political coup. He’s pointing to a person.
Again, think back to that person you had in mind at the beginning. When that person is absent, things aren’t right, things are “off,” you’re missing something essential to your life. But when they are there, when your relationship with them is strong and healthy, peace and meaning and joy and everything are alright. Even if the world and everything else is crashing down around you, as long as you have them, it’s alright.
This is what happens when our relationship with Christ is healthy, when we recognize that Christ is present, and alive, and active, and real: peace, wholeness, and completeness reign in our lives. Isaiah uses that poetic imagery to describe this: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together…The cow and the bear shall be neighbors…The baby shall play by the cobra’s den” (c.f., Isaiah 11). Everything within us that usually rages, the lack of peace, the lack of joy…in his presence, in relationship with him, everything changes.
So what’s holding you back? Well, that’s why John the Baptist leads with that simple command: “repent.” And repent doesn’t mean, “stop sinning, stop doing bad things, stop cussing,” yes but no. “Repent” means turning your heart and your mind away from the things you have decided are going to bring you happiness and peace and joy and fulfillment—turn away from your own ideas of how all of this works, and turn back to the path given to you by God. We’ve talked about needing to let go of idols and clinging to Christ; that’s a good way to think about it. Want to know your idols? Finish the sentence: “I can’t imagine my life without…” “Repent” is about letting go of all of that, to turn our heart and our mind away from our inordinate preoccupation with those things, and to turn toward the coming of the kingdom, the kingdom itself, Christ.
What holds us back in a relationship with any normal person? What are those things that break down relationships in our everyday life? People taking us for granted, not appreciating us. People growing distance, not speaking regularly anymore, finding new friends. People start spending their time differently: video games, working more, golf, football. Trust is broken, they are unfaithful. They find someone else, a new best friend or spouse. In everyday life, these are no brainers! Of course the relationship broke down!
But these are the exact same things going on that break down our relationship with Christ. This is what John the Baptist means by “repent.” If we’re going to do our part to mend our relationship with Christ, these are the kinds of things we need to attend to. Do I take him for granted, not appreciate him? Have I grown distant, not spent time speaking to him? Have I invested my time elsewhere: video games, work, golf, sports, home makeover? Have I broken trust, been unfaithful to him through sins, through other relationships? Has someone else become more important to me than Christ? And if I have, have I sought out the Sacrament of Confession to fix that? Have I spent time in prayer, gone to adoration?
These are the kinds of questions we have to begin to ask ourselves, especially during this Advent season. How real is the person, the presence of Christ to me? Do I long for Christ like I do the people I miss most in this world? If I lost Christ’s friendship, would it hurt me more than losing one of my friends? If I were to lose Christ forever, would it hurt me more than the death of my spouse or my child? IS MY RELATIONSHIPS WITH CHRIST IN NEED OF REPAIR because of how I’m living, or because of my marriage? Please, come talk to me, I would love to help.
The coming of Christmas is something we usually look forward to because of all of the cookies and gifts and songs—all of the Christmas traditions. But maybe this Christmas we can have a new desire to experience Christ really and truly present. Maybe this Christmas, our desire for him, to experience him as a real person—present, alive and active in our life—could outweigh anything else.
When God asked St. Thomas Aquinas what he could give him, anything in the world, St. Thomas responded, “Non nisi te, Domine.” Nothing but you, Lord. May that be our request this Christmas: nothing but you, Lord.