Gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Advent
1 John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, 2 “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” 3 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.”
4 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. 7 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? 8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. 9 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.
10 Even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire. 11 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. 12 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” (Mt 3:1-12).
I – Advent, Time for a Revision…
When a ship is about to leave the shipyard for its maiden voyage, a christening ceremony is customarily held, in which the new vessel is dubbed. To close the act, a bottle of champagne is broken on the ship’s bow, its precious liquid spilling out flamboyantly. Tradition holds that the more foam produced, the better will be the ship’s chances of crossing the seas in safety. Finally, freshly painted and gleaming, the ship is launched on its first navigation.
But as the years go by, the ship starts to lose speed, not because its engine has weakened, but because large encrustations of molluscs have adhered to its hull. To allow it to once again cut through the water with ease, it is necessary for it to return to the shipyard to remove the encrustation that is bogging the ship down.
Cars also perform well when new, but after some use they need a tune-up to assure proper mechanical functioning.
The same applies in health matters. From time to time, we go for medical check-ups and visit the dentist to ensure that everything is in order. But the most important examination we need to make is of the soul.
We have to look frequently into our spiritual life, for even though we are baptized, assiduously receive the Sacraments and practise our Faith seriously, we frequently face circumstances that lead us to commit certain imperfections or become attached to the vanities of this world, and we develop compulsions and bad habits as a result.
We easily fall into thinking that each individual exists only for himself, independent of God and unrelated to others, and that no one sees our thoughts and hidden actions. But in reality, it is only a matter of time before everything will become public.
We can compare our situation with that of someone who keeps a secret document in a safety deposit box. However, by night, he receives a visit from an Angel sent by God, with the order to transmit the secret text to all of humanity…
This is what the Final Judgement will be like: all our thoughts, desires and scheming, as well as our good and bad actions will be known by all, both the blessed and the condemned, without exception – including Angels and devils – as Catholic doctrine teaches.1
This is why, in its extraordinary wisdom, the Church distributes the Liturgy over the course of the year to provide us, at set times, the opportunity to carry out a spiritual inspection. One of these periods is Advent, a time of conversion, a time for examination of conscience, penance, and a change of life. The preaching of St. John the Baptist, recorded by St. Matthew in today’s Gospel, provides precious material for this.
II – “Repent…”!
1a John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea…
St. Luke’s narration clearly lays out the scene of the Precursor’s action; it reports that John “went into all the region about the Jordan” (Lk 3:3). Because of its closeness to the river, along whose banks lush vegetation grows, this locale is a less harsh portion of the inhospitable and extensive region neighbouring the Dead Sea, known as the desert of Judea. In fact, St. John lived the years preceding his public mission in the solitary northern regions of this desert, where Our Lord would later spend forty days fasting, after being baptized.2
Let us consider the words spoken by John the Baptist, seeking to apply them to ourselves.
The false hope of the world
1b …and saying, 2 “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
We all receive a seed of God’s Kingdom with Baptism, a seed which we must cultivate through the practice of our Faith, while we await its full possession in eternity.
However, in the modern world, this hope for eternal life is replaced by another, whose object is not God, but rather technology – scientific inventions and discoveries which make human existence more comfortable, and prolong it considerably. The notion has even gained credence that science will yet come up with an elixir with properties that will confer immortality.
Now, technology and medicine can indeed lengthen our lives, but not eternalize them. The time will come when these will fail us, and we will have to depart from this world. Then all earthly hope will come to an end, as the Book of Wisdom teaches: “like chaff carried by the wind, and like a light hoarfrost driven away by a storm; it is dispersed like smoke before the wind, and it passes like the remembrance of a guest who stays but a day” (Wis 5:14).
Taken in this light, the Precursor’s admonishment is very clear and relevant for us: it speaks of doing penance for these deviations, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not for those who place their trust in progress, in machines or in material comfort, but for those who trust in God and have their hope set on eternity.
The risk of becoming deaf to God
3 It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A speech of one crying out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths.”
Applied by the four Evangelists to St. John the Baptist, this passage from Isaiah is profoundly symbolic, reminding us of the perennial timeliness of the Precursor’s message. It strikes us that the prophet situates John’s mission “in the wilderness.”
We should interpret this reference as metaphorical rather than strictly physical: John cried out and was heard by those “in the wilderness,” namely, those interiorly detached from all that does not lead to God. When a person is surrounded by the agitation of the “city,” strongly attached to the vanities, machines, and human relationships that draw away from virtue, they are deafened to the voice that speaks of conversion.
At first sight, many of these things may seem legitimate. But those who attach themselves to what is licit and who forget about God, soon fall into illicit attachments. Applying this to ourselves, we can ask: how many disordered affections keep us from hearing the cry of St. John, spoken to us at every moment, through the inner motions of grace in the soul, or through the action of others?
Exhortation to a life of integrity
When people become attached to something illegitimate, they immediately create a doctrine to justify the evil path they have taken.
This is because man is innately logical with regard to the coherence between his conduct and his thinking, as expressed in the incisive phrase of Paul Bourget, cited by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his famed work Revolution and Counter-Revolution: “One must live as one thinks, under pain of, sooner or later, thinking as one has lived.”3
When a person does not desire self-amendment – in other words, to “make his paths straight” – he will in fact end up thinking in accord with his way of life. It is vital, then, to root out rationalizations from our soul, so that we can walk along God’s paths with honesty.
John the Baptist not only called for integrity, but also gave an example of it with his life, which was a model of complete coherence, and with his habits, which were entirely unlike that of the average person, as St. Matthew describes in the following verse.
4 Now 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, just as in ours, clothes were not made of camel hair, for this is a course material, rough to the touch. St. John’s way of dressing must have caused astonishment. Furthermore, he wore a leather belt around his waist, showing that he was a virgin and practised chastity. His diet, which consisted of locusts and wild honey, gives us some idea of his life of penance. Owing to our instinctive aversion, most of us would scarcely be able to eat a single one of these insects under duress.
St. John rends the veil of false appearances
5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
What was it that attracted the crowds to the Precursor, to the point that Israelites came from all over Palestine to join him? Among other reasons, it was because he was known to speak the truth. And those who accepted his words with good spirit resolved to set out on a new life. To take this step, they confessed their sins and received the “baptism of repentance” (Lk 3:3), which was not the Sacrament later instituted by Our Lord, but a symbolic rite, a type of sacramental that, by means of penance, prepared souls to receive the Saviour.4 Accordingly, John led many “disobedient to the wisdom of the just” (Lk 1:17).
But along with those who converted, there were some who did not want to listen…
7a When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!”
The Pharisees and the Sadducees, whose influence held sway over the entire socio-political scene of that time, were always on the lookout for fluctuations in public opinion, for it was in their best interests to maintain the support of the grassroots of society. Members of both factions saw the enthusiasm that this figure, the Precursor, enkindled among the multitudes who flocked to hear him, as a threat to their power. With an eye to giving the impression that they were joining this wave of religious fervour, they decided to go and see John.
But, judging themselves to be perfect and even sinless, they did not intend to confess their faults, but only to receive baptism as a stamp that would justify them in the public eye.
When the prophet saw them, “he discerned that they had not come in sincerity but rather with feigned and hypocritical posturing, which was entirely in line with their way of being.”5 A reprimand was swift in coming: “You brood of vipers!” We should not imagine that St. John murmured these words, or that he spoke in a monotone. He undoubtedly had a powerful voice which made his listeners stand up and take notice, so to speak, as if God Himself had spoken. Truth be told, John, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:15), represented God and transmitted His will.
Now, the serpent was the animal that satan used in Paradise to draw Eve into sin. This left such a mark that, despite its being an irrational creature, without free will, and therefore incapable of incurring guilt, it was cursed by the Creator, becoming a symbol of evil from then on. St. John called the Pharisees and Sadducees vipers because they induced others to sin.
Later, Our Lord will repeat this censure in their hearing (cf. Mt 12:34; 23:33) and will add others, still more severe and cutting.
Cause of perdition for others
7b “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”
The Precursor goes on to threaten them, reminding them of God’s impending chastisement. In speaking of fleeing from wrath, he touches again on the subterfuge concocted by the consciences of those who want to be taken as holy by others, yet whose lives are not in keeping with their outward appearances.
Here was a case in point; they were only concerned with their public image and not with an authentic change of life as preached by St. John the Baptist. Those who deceive others like this play the role of the serpent that lied to Eve; they belong to the “brood of vipers” of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and, with them, incur the divine wrath.
8 “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”
In demanding this, St. John tacitly affirms that the fruits produced until then were contrary to the works of virtue. Indeed, the Pharisees and Sadducees, each in their own way, took advantage of the power of God’s Word – of which they claimed to be transmitters – to deceive others, side-tracking them from the true Religion. Besides this, as they were not in pursuit of perfection, they gave the bad example typical of hypocrites, who “profess to know God, but they deny Him by their deeds” (Ti 1:16).
How many souls did they cast into hell because of the scandal they caused with their double life? Our Lord Himself would underscore the gravity of this sin: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the Kingdom of Heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Mt 23:13). On the day of Final Judgement, the condemned will rise up to accuse those who were the cause of their perdition.
We can take an important lesson from this: those whose souls are in disorder cannot lead others to virtue. The interior life is fundamental for benefitting one’s neighbour, as the excellent treatise Soul of the Apostolate teaches:
“Our interior life ought to be the stem, filled with vigorous sap, of which our works are the flowers. The soul of an apostle should be flooded first of all with light, and inflamed with love, so that, reflecting that light and that heat, it may enlighten and give warmth to other souls as well. That which they have heard, which they have seen with their eyes, which they have looked upon, and their hands have almost handled, this will they teach to men (cf. 1 Jn 1:1).”6
Appearances will be of no use…
9 “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.”
Therefore, the Precursor points out that before the Divine Judge it will be of no use to fall back on appearances: “We have Abraham as our father.” This argument would have been meaningful for those in attendance since, due to the commonly held notion among the Jews, simply being a descendant of Abraham was, in itself, a guarantee of eternal salvation.
Now, if God can raise up sons to Abraham from rough stones, then it falls to us to invoke His grace, while in this world. However, we can never say that we are true sons of Abraham – in other words, heirs of the promise made to him and to his descendants, that is, to Christ (cf. Gal 3:16) – if we are enmeshed in sin, even if we hide under the cloak of virtue. Our Lord Himself affirms this: “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did” (Jn 8:39).
The tree shall be known by its fruits
10 “Even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire.”
After this scathing public accusation, St. John uses the expressive image of a barren tree to give a warning. If a tree that produces no good fruit should be cut down and thrown into the fire, how much more does this apply to those whose fruits are bad and harmful to others! This is why God sometimes intervenes to cut short the advance of evil; if not, hell would continue piling up with creatures made by Him to render Him perfect and eternal glory in Heaven. The axe lies at the roots of the trees, for “the eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prv 15:3).
And eternal fire awaits those who reject conversion, live in sin, and condemn others with their despicable example.
Proclamation of the Messiah who comes to save… and to condemn
11 “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.”
Suddenly, the discourse changes tone, for the focus switches to Our Lord. Distinguishing the substantial difference between penitential baptism and the Sacrament which the Redeemer was to bring, John the Baptist emphasizes his complete submission to Jesus, stating that he is unworthy to carry His sandals, a task fit for a simple slave.
Thus, he gives Our Lord the true place of precedence before the people, showing the humility that was a constant in his mission as proclaimer of Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
12 “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.”
Concluding his words, the Precursor reveals who will execute the sentence previously announced: the Messiah, the same who came to save, baptizing “with the Holy Spirit and fire,” is ready to cast the chaff into the “unquenchable fire.”
At Judgement, the illusion of those who think they can “find a way around” God and go to Heaven, despite having lived contrary to His ways, will vanish. There will be no more commiseration or condescendence on the part of the Creator: if the “tree” did not produce what it should have, and dies at enmity with God, it will be cast “into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt 13:42).
And let us not think that bearing the Christian character will be enough to free us from eternal disgrace. On the contrary, this will only intensify our condemnation, for it implies a greater rejection of grace.
III – Our Hope Must Be in God
The words of St. John on this Second Sunday of Advent invite us to pause for a moment to think about death and judgement – events which none of us will escape – and show the need for a change of mentality.
If we look into ourselves honestly, in the light of this Gospel, we will realize how many worldly principles we have allowed to filter into our souls over time, deluding ourselves with a false sense of security and stability.
For example, it could be egalitarianism stemming from pride, or materialism that makes us revolve our lives around technology, money, or the like. And it is from this standpoint that we should consider the conversion to which St. John the Baptist exhorts us, and prepare to appear before God’s tribunal.
And we should view this Judge with an altogether Christian hope, that is, with entire confidence in God and in the merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who will pardon our sins and miseries if we acknowledge them with repentance.
If we nourish these interior sentiments, we will attain holiness, the goal of all the baptized, and we will reach the full participation in God’s life, as the Collect highlights: “Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet Your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to His company.”7 ◊
1 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ, Suppl., q.87, a.2.
2 Cf. GOMÁ Y TOMÁS, Isidro. El Evangelio explicado, vol. I: Introducción, Infancia y vida oculta de Jesús. Preparación de su ministerio público. Barcelona: Rafael Casulleras, 1930, p.332; 403; FILLION, Louis-Claude. Vida de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo, vol. I: Infancia y Bautismo. Madrid: Rialp, 2000, p.295.
3 BOURGET, Paul. Le démon du midi, apud CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Revolução e Contra-Revolução. [Revolution and Counter-Revolution.] (Ed.5). São Paulo: Retornarei, 2002, p.41.
4 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ, III, q.38, a.3.
5 MALDONADO, SJ, Juan de. Comentarios a los Cuatro Evangelios, vol. I: Evangelio de San Mateo. Madrid: BAC, 1950, p.187.
6 CHAUTARD, OCSO, Jean-Baptiste. The Soul of the Apostolate. Trappist, KY: Abbey of Gethsemani, 1946, p.51-52.
7 SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT. Collect. In: THE ROMAN MISSAL. English translation according to the Third Typical Edition approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and confirmed by the Apostolic See. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2011, p.146.