“ When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, John said to them, “You brood of vipers! 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.”
When I read these words from today’s gospel, I think of them as a reprimand that Jesus is making toward those who hold onto their self-righteous, smug attitude and feel that they do not have a need for conversion in their life. And, surely, in the context of this gospel, this is what is happening. However, I invite you to see a deeper invitation in these words. Imagine Jesus saying, “If God has the power to be able to make a stone into a child of Abraham, imagine what God could do within you if you just let him.”
The Pharisees and Sadducees who came to the Jordan river to listen to John were motivated perhaps by curiosity, perhaps by a need to know what the voice of the anti-establishment was up to, or, perhaps even by a mild desire to confront that which needed to change inside their heart. But, like many of us, we are aware of our defects of character, but we equally feel a hopeless, helpless inability to do much about it. As John was preaching and people were being baptized in this water of repentance, maybe some of the Pharisees held back - not just out of a sense of superiority, but maybe out of a sense of despair thinking that there is not enough water in that Jordan River to wash me entirely clean.
Sometimes I feel that way when I hear a powerful preacher who is presenting me with the challenge to reform my life. I would like to, but these vices, these life-long issues, these deeply embedded struggles have such a grip on my heart that I don’t believe that change is possible. But here the Baptist is saying to us, “Listen, God who is mighty is capable of great things. The one who could turn these stones into children of Abraham could do incredible things – if you were only to let him.”
Now are you ready for some really good news? John was baptizing in water – a nice ritual through which people expressed their desire for a better, holier way of life. Would some grab onto that holiness? Perhaps some did – for a while. But, at the same time, John said, “Wait, one mightier than I is going to come and baptize you with the holy Spirit and with fire.” You who are now reading these words have been so baptized. The one who can change stones into children of Abraham now dwells in you – and yes, the change for which you hope and desire is now within reach because that same holy Spirit was given to you in Baptism and Confirmation. Receive that which is already given to you and believe that change is really possible.
In the sacristy of a convent chapel where I used to celebrate Mass, there was a plaque on the vesting table that read, “O Priest of God, say this Mass as though it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass.” Of course, hoping against hope that this was not going to be my “last Mass,” it certainly was a sobering reminder to me that I ought never take anything for granted. Over the course of time, many things become routine, even prayer itself, and we all lose the fervor that we once had when we were younger in doing the things that once energized us so. Without that little “wake-up call,” Mass itself is just another routine of the day.
Today begins the holy season of Advent, and the Church asks us on the first Sunday of Advent to become aware of the fundamental truth that we are not in charge of time itself. “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. . . You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” It is as if Jesus were saying to us, “O child of God, live this day as if it were your first day, your last day, your only day.”
The irony of Advent is that for the most part we see this period of time as a season of preparation – getting ready for Christmas. And so we are caught up in the idea of preparation for a future event, paralleling what we do in our secular lives, living in a ruthless countdown of days that are fleetingly left to get all of the holiday preparations done. Advent, however, ought never to be reduced to being a kind of “preparation time,” a second-rate season that points us to the real big splash of Christmas day. Rather, Advent is meant to be a time of seeing the blessing of the present moment, to take seriously this present day as a day of encounter. Christ was born 2,000 years ago, but he so longs to make himself manifest to you today. So today live your life in that intense desire that He will make his presence manifest in this holy moment.
As we begin a new church year, as we turn the page of a new liturgical calendar, we are invited to see the fundamental truth that, while we try to measure time, control time, prolong time, we are not in control of time. This day is the only day that I have been given. This moment is the only moment I can be assured of. Let us live passionately this precious present moment seeking the Lord who so seeks now to be in sacred communion with us.
PS -- I might remind myself of the precious present as an opportunity to be in communion with Jesus while I wait on line to make purchases of Christmas presents - or even wait along Old Country Road that becomes now a two-mile-long-parking-lot filled with cars not really going anywhere.
Any final words? Any last requests? In movies about inmates on death row facing their final moments, those dramatic questions are asked to those about to be executed. In today's gospel, we have the scene of three executed criminals. Listen to their final words, their last
"Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"
"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
"Remember me when you come into your Kingdom."
All three ask for salvation - save me from my discomfort, save us from the consequences of our bad choices, save me from being regarded as nothing, worthless, useless. Much can be said about the request to be freed from the crosses of life. As a matter of fact, many of us choose to live a pattern of life where we are always seeking to escape the pain, discomfort and inconveniences of our daily crosses. Still more could be said about the desire to forgive those who have hurt us. For many of us, the nobility of Christ the King who forgives his tormenters seems to be a power that is beyond the strength of mere mortals. But I would like to focus on the final request of this person whom our tradition has labeled "the good thief."
Remember me when you come into your Kingdom. A person comes to look at the entirety of their life and began to wonder, Did I matter? Did my life have any purpose, value, meaning? For the Jewish person, the idea of remembrance was so important. "May his memory be blessed" is still an honorific used by the Jewish community in speaking of the dead. Certainly,
a thief who in the end lost everything would desire that last shred of dignity as his dying wish. Somehow I want to be worthy of being remembered with kindness and affection.
But this thief makes his request to another executed criminal. Here is a profound act of faith. I imagine the good thief thinking, “We both hang here, objects of derision and scorn. But I believe that you really are a king. To others, you may be a loser and all that you worked for has been for naught. But I believe your life has meaning and that through all of this pain
and torture you are going to come through this victorious -- you will soon enter your Kingdom. I ask you to grant meaning and worth and value to my life as well, even though I have nothing to offer you except my failures and bad decisions that brought me to this cross. Jesus, remember me. I mean to say, re-member me because now I feel dismembered, not membered as a part of society, rejected as you have been rejected. Put me back together
again in your Kingdom.
In those moments when all feels so hopeless and you believe that all you tried to accomplish has failed, know that there is a King who so desires to put you back together again this day.