Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent
Zeph 3:1-2,9-13; Matt 21:28-32
December 14, 2010 (Memorial of Saint John of the Cross)
My youngest brother started his undergraduate studies at the College of William and Mary in the autumn of 1988. A few months into his freshman year, he called home not to say that he made the Dean’s List, and not to say that he won a prestigious internship. He let us know that he and a few others at William and Mary started a newspaper. The newspaper was not a variation of The Gazette or The Times or The News or even The Review. It was called The Remnant.
The inaugural issue of the newspaper included references to the prophet Isaiah, the Greek philosopher Plato and the poet Matthew Arnold – all of whom used the idea of the remnant to articulate a belief that certain truths must always be recognized and preserved. The religious meaning of the word refers to the notion that God spares a minority from calamity and with these few He will fashion the nucleus of a new and holy community.
Journalistically, the appeal is to renew society by holding fast to literary and cultural standards which are vanishing from view. Theologically, the remnant is allied to the notion of election. God elects a people, Israel, and makes her His own. While the Lord is faithful all the time, the Chosen Ones of Yahweh tragically are not.
The prophet Zephaniah in the first reading today characterizes the infidelity as a rebellion. (cf. Zeph 3:1) In God’s judgment against the rebellion, He leaves in place a contingent humble and lowly. (cf. Zeph 3:12) They stand out for they do no wrong and they speak no lies. (cf. Zeph 3:13) The remnant is set apart because those who belong to it pasture and couch their flocks without disturbance. (cf. Zeph 3:13)
For two Sundays now, our attention has been fixed on Saint John the Baptist. The Lord’s precursor exercises a formidable role in getting us ready for the coming of Our Savior. His voice echoes down through the centuries and reaches our ears today: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” (Matt 3:3)
Besides being an ascetic, John knows the human heart. He knows how intransigent it can be, how resistant it can be to grace. Thus, it’s not surprising that John would resort to castigating strongly the Pharisees and the Sadducees. “You brood of vipers (Matt 3:7),” he brands them in the gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent.
Sometimes we are rougher on the person who commits the sin than we are in actually condemning his act. Sometimes our accusations never get out of second gear, as in the second person pronoun – singular and plural, “you” and “you people.” We need to ratchet up our accusations to first gear as in “I have sinned.”
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (cf. Lk 18:9-14) is a cautionary tale for all who dare to occupy official positions in the Church and for all those who aspire to the same. We must ask mercy (cf. Lk 18:13) ourselves that our judgments be righteous but not self-righteous.
In the wisdom of the liturgical year, the middle two weeks of Advent give way to the Fourth Sunday when we reflect on the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the lips of Our Lady are the words: “[The Lord has] lifted up the lowly.” (Lk 1:52) The Lord Who has done great things for her (cf. Lk 1:49) also does great things for us. But we must not presume that He will act this way toward us.
Just as there is no air of presumption about Mary, whatever existed of presumption in the apostle John is vanquished by the crucible of suffering. In Saint Mark’s Gospel, John is one of two apostles to ask Jesus to be seated at the Lord’s side in glory. (cf. Mk 10:37) But John is the only apostle at Golgotha on Good Friday; the other ten have fled in fear. The Lord’s hour has caused in John a maturity to lead as a shepherd himself on the model of the Good Shepherd.
Despite his youthfulness or maybe because of it, John understands presciently the meaning of Jesus’ words: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:11) Here, we find the searing paradox of the Cross, the goodness in Good Friday – if you will. To paraphrase the Psalmist: It is a joy if we to go to the altar of God (Ps 43:4). And it is a joy not just in the Third Week of Advent but always.
Our joy is in joining the most significant remnant the world has ever known – the one constituted at the foot of the Cross. It comes into existence with the words of our Redeemer: “Woman, behold, your son” (Jn 19:26) and “Behold, your mother.” (Jn 19:27) The strength of this remnant in history can never be rightly assessed if all we do is add up numbers in baptismal registers. Its real strength is found in those who make the Cross the vital center of how they arrange their lives.
The saint whom we honor in the liturgy today – Saint John of the Cross – did just that. This Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, author of the The Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul, adored the Cross on which hung the Savior of the world. What joins the Cross to the manger is that they are both made of wood. We can only become the children of the Cross because we are first the children of the manger. Let us get ready to kneel ourselves in imitation of that holy remnant we find in Bethlehem on Christmas.
Praised be Jesus Christ!
Msgr Robert Batule