2nd Sunday of Advent Isaiah 40:1–5, 9–11; 2 Peter 3:8–14; Mark 1:1–8
Prepare the Way Advent is a time to return to the basics and to put Jesus Christ first in our lives.
In his book The Power within You, Pat Williams of the Philadelphia 76ers tells a remarkable story.
It was a hot Sunday afternoon in 1980. A young cerebral palsy victim named Cordell Brown was walking through the clubhouse of the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies.
Cordell walks with great difficulty. He talks with great difficulty. Feeding himself is a very difficult task.
When people see Cordell coming, they usually turn the other way or pretend not to see him. That’s what some the Phillies were doing as Cordell made his way through the clubhouse.
What was Cordell doing in the Phil’s clubhouse? He had been invited there to speak to the players in a pregame chapel service.
What could Cordell possibly say to stars like Steve Carleton and Mike Schmit, who were far removed from his world of pain and deformity? Some of the Phillies were asking the same thing when they sat down to listen to him.
Cordell began by putting the players at ease. He said, “I know I’m different.” Then, quoting 1 Corinthians 15:10, he added, “But by God’s grace I am what I am. . . .”
For the next 20 minutes Cordell Brown talked about the goodness of God in his life. He concluded by answering the question, What could he say to famous superstars like Steve Carleton and Mike Schmit, who were so far removed from his world of pain and deformity?
Cordell said in a loving way: “You may hit three-fifty for a lifetime and be paid a million dollars a year, but when the day comes that they close the lid on that box, you won’t be any different than I am. That’s one time when we’ll be the same.
I don’t need what you have in life, but one thing’s for sure: You need what I have, and that’s Jesus Christ.”
I like that story for two reasons.
First, it speaks to us about the season of Advent.
It invites us to return to the basics. It invites us to ask ourselves, What is really important to us? It invites us to look at our priorities in life. Above all, it asks us if Jesus Christ is the number one priority in our lives.
And this brings us to the second point about the story of Cordell Brown. It speaks to us about today’s Scripture readings.
All three readings talk about the need to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. All three readings tell us that if our lives are not what they should be, then we should do something about it.
It other words, if we have strayed from the basics, then today’s readings invite us to return to them.
If we have placed our work ahead of our families, then today’s readings invite us to correct this situation.
If we have placed success ahead of our personal relationship with God, then today’s readings invite us to change this.
In Westminster Abbey in London, there’s a small chapel called St. George’s Chapel. It was built as a memorial to the Londoners who lost their lives during the air raids of World War II.
Inside the chapel are four large books. These books contain the names of over 60,000 air raid victims. One book lies open and on it shines a light illuminating the page of names.
Each day the page is turned, revealing a new set of names. As you stare at the long column of names and read them, you have no way of knowing whether the person whose name you are reading was rich or poor, black, white, or brown, Christian, Jew, or atheist, young or old, handsome or ugly.
Nor does this really make any difference. All that matters now is what each person became in the course of his or her life on earth. The story of Cordell Brown and the story of St. George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey make us ask ourselves a question.
What should we do if we find that our lives are not being lived as they should be? What should we do if we find that Jesus does not really occupy first place in our lives? What should we do if we find that we are not prepared for death—or for the Second Coming of Jesus—whichever comes first?
The answer is, of course, that we should do exactly what John the Baptist advised the people of his time to do. We should repent. We should seek God’s forgiveness for our sins. We should turn over a new leaf and begin a new life.
This is what Advent is all about. It is a time when we take inventory of our lives and make whatever changes in them that seem to be necessary.
And this brings us back to the remarkable story of Cordell Brown, and the question posed in that story.
What could Cordell possibly say to superstars like Steve Carleton and Mike Schmit, who were so far removed from his world of pain and deformity?
What could Cordell possibly have to say to you and me?
Cordell gave the answer to that question in a loving way:
“You may hit three-fifty for a lifetime and be paid a million dollars a year, but when the day comes that they close the lid on that box, you won’t be any different than I am. That’s one time when we’ll be the same.
“I don’t need what you have in life, but one thing’s for sure: You need what I have, and that’s Jesus Christ.”
Let’s close by paraphrasing an old poem. It talks about how quickly life passes and what is important in the end:
“When I was a child, I laughed and wept. Then, time crept.
“When I was a youth, I became more bold. Then, I strolled.
“When I grew up, I became a man. Then, time ran.
“Finally, into a ripe, old age I grew. Then, time flew.
“Soon I shall be passing on. Then, time will be gone.
“O Jesus, when death comes, nothing will matter—but you.”
Series II 2nd Sunday of Advent Isaiah 40:1–5, 9–11; 2 Peter 3:8–14; Mark 1:1–8
Quo Vadis Conversion means returning from traveling down a wrong road and setting out anew down the right one. The novel Quo Vadis describes the situation in Rome a few decades after the resurrection of Jesus. Rome has outlawed Christianity, and a bloody persecution rages.
In spite of the persecution, Christianity continues to grow and spread, especially through the inspired preaching of the Apostle Peter.
At one point in the story, a young Roman named Vinicius falls in love with a beautiful Christian girl. But she won’t have anything to do with him, because his whole approach to life is so completely different from hers.
Vinicius becomes curious about what Christians do when they worship. So one night he follows the girl to a secret gathering of Christians.
He hides in the shadows outside the meeting place. Then, without the Christians knowing it, Vinicius listens to their service.
The time comes for Peter to preach to the gathering. As Peter talks about Jesus, something strange starts to happen to Vinicius. He begins to take seriously what Peter says. And he contemplates what he’d have to do to become a Christian.
He comes to the conclusion that he’d have to take two big steps.
First, he’d have to throw his present life on a pile and burn it to ashes. Second, he’d have to embark on a new life—a life that was totally different from his present one. That image of Vinicius—throwing his life on a pile, burning it to ashes, and embarking on a new life—is a good image of what ancient Jews meant by conversion.
The Jewish word for conversion means, literally, to return from traveling down a wrong road and to set out anew on the right road.
That’s just what John the Baptist is telling the people to do in today’s gospel.
He’s telling them to return from going down the road of sin, which leads to death, and to set out anew on the road of virtue, which leads to life.
Thus, conversion involves admitting that one’s life is going in the wrong direction, reversing direction, and embarking on a whole new life.
This is the message that John the Baptist is preaching to the crowds gathered on the banks of the Jordan River. As a sign that they intend to change their lives, John tells the people to step down into the river and be baptized.
He reminds them, however, that washing their bodies, which symbolizes washing their souls, is only the first step. It merely sets the stage for the second step.
Like Vinicius, they must not only die to their old life but also begin living a new life. This explains what John means when he says, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. It is merely the first step. It is merely a preparation for the second step.
And what is the second step?
The second step is receiving the baptism of rebirth that Jesus will bring. It’s receiving the Holy Spirit and beginning a whole new life. It’s setting out anew on the right road.
In brief, then, John instructs the people in today’s gospel to do two things.
First, they are to undergo a baptism of repentance, that is, a rejection of their old life of sin.
Second, they are to undergo a baptism of rebirth, that is, a reception of a new life in the Spirit.
How does all this apply to us 2,000 years later? How does all this apply, in a special way, to the Advent season?
All of us find ourselves in a situation similar to both Vinicius in the novel Quo Vadis and the people in today’s gospel.
Even though we have been washed clean of sin and have been baptized into the Spirit, all of us, to some extent, have fallen back into sin.
All of us have need to take certain things in our lives, throw them on a pile, and burn them to ashes. All of us have need to revitalize the life of the Spirit within us.
Advent is a time for doing this. That’s why the Church has us read in Advent the story of John the Baptist telling the people to undergo conversion to prepare for the coming of Jesus.
The Church knows that all of us need to undergo conversion, at least to some extent, to prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming on Christmas.
And by doing this, we will also prepare ourselves for Christ’s final coming at the end of time.
Let’s close with a story that illustrates the kind of Advent conversion the Church is inviting us to make.
In the early days of British history, punishments for crimes were often cruel. For example, there are cases on record where people’s hands were cut off as a punishment for stealing.
Part of the reason for these cruel and unusual punishments was to deter other people from stealing.
During this era of cruel punishment, a man was caught stealing sheep. The authorities branded on his forehead the letters S.T., standing for “sheep thief.’’
The man spent the rest of his life living down that humiliating episode. He succeeded to a remarkable degree.
When the man reached old age, the letters S.T. were still clearly visible on his forehead. But when children asked their parents what the letters stood for, their parents replied, “They stand for the word saint.’’
God says to all of us here today, in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Wash yourselves clean. . . .You are stained red with sin, but I will wash you as clean as snow.” Isaiah 1:16, 18
Series III 2nd Sunday of Advent Isaiah 40:1–5, 9–11; 2 Peter 3:8–14; Mark 1:1–8
Conversion Three moments: zero, surrender, power.
Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel!’ . . . Turn away from your sins . . . and God will forgive your sins.” Mark 1:3–4 (adapted)
Dennis Alessi was walking along a street in downtown Baltimore. Coming to a busy street corner, he came upon an elderly man who was calling out to passersby, “Return to Jesus! Return to Jesus!”
The elderly man’s pulpit was a clean metal trash can. On it was a well-worn Bible. The man was bald and wore glasses. He was dressed in a clean white shirt and neatly pressed pants.
His plea to the passersby was clearly sincere and deeply dignified. Alessi said there was something about the man that touched him deeply. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
Whatever it was, for some mysterious reason, it motivated him to think about his relationship with Jesus.
The upshot of that thinking was that he returned to the Catholic Church after having been separated from it for over seven years.
In retrospect, he saw that the man standing on the busy corner was a kind of modern-day version of John the Baptist. And the man’s call, “Return to Jesus,” was a kind of modern-day version of John’s call: “ ‘Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel!’ . . . Turn away from your sins . . . and God will forgive your sins.” Mark 1:3–4
Finally, Alessi’s conversion was a kind of modern-day illustration of how many people in biblical times responded to the call of John the Baptist to turn away from their sins.
Consider yet another modern example of the kind of conversion to which John the Baptist called people. Charles de Foucauld was born into a wealthy family in France. During his youth, he lived totally for himself and for his own pleasure.
Eventually, he enlisted in the army. But in no time he was dismissed because of scandalous conduct. Concerning those years, he wrote:
I was so completely selfish, so completely vain, so completely irreligious, and utterly given over to wickedness, that I was only a step away from insanity.
In this state of mind, he realized that he needed help. At this point, he began visiting the Church of Saint Augustine in Paris.
There he would kneel, repeating over and over, “My God, if you exist, let me come to know you.”
One day, during one of these visits, Mass was in progress. At the elevation of the sacred host, he felt the gift of faith enter his heart. “In that single moment,” he wrote later, “my heart was touched and I believed.”
To make a long story short, he went on to found a religious order, called the Little Brothers of Jesus. It was modeled after Jesus’ own life at Nazareth.
It was a life of simply identifying with the poor by living among them, working with them, and praying for them. A line from the constitutions of the Little Brothers of Jesus reads:
The whole of our existence, the whole of our lives is to preach the Gospel from the rooftops . . .not by words but by example. Acloser look at the dramatic conversion of Charles de Foucauld reveals that it followed the textbook pattern that so many conversions follow. It involved three distinct moments: a zero moment—realizing I need help; a surrender moment—asking for help; and a power moment—experiencing help.
The zero moment for Charles de Foucauld was recognizing and admitting to himself that his life was totally out of control. The surrender moment was his decision to go regularly to the Church of Saint Augustine, kneel in the back, and pray for help, saying over and over, “My God, if you exist, let me come to know you.”
The power moment came suddenly and by surprise during the elevation of the host at Mass. Faith entered his life and transformed it.
How do we reduce all of this to a practical application to our lives?
I think it is the realization that all of us have certain things in our lives that are out of control to some extent.
Even the best of us have to admit that there are things that we find hard—if not impossible—to control. Maybe it’s a prejudice that we picked up. Maybe it’s a judgmental attitude we have. Maybe it’s a habit of sin we slipped into.
The most difficult thing to do is to admit that we have this problem. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous testify to this difficulty and to the importance of taking this first step.
For Charles de Foucauld, the first step toward regaining control of his life was the admission that through sin, he had lost control of his life.
And that brings us to the second moment: the surrender moment. It is the moment when we swallow our pride and reach out for help.
For de Foucauld it was the decision to go regularly to the Church of Saint Augustine and pray for help. That was the important second step in regaining control of his life.
Finally, there is the power moment. It is the moment when we experience God’s help. We may struggle a long time for this moment to come, but if we persevere, it will come.
It may come in the form of faith in God, as de Foucauld experienced it. But regardless of how it comes, it will come. One man said of the power moment:
When I felt God’s help, I wanted to throw my arms around the whole world and share the experience with everybody. A few minutes before I had no such desire, because I had nothing to share.
That brings us to Advent and this Mass. Both are occasions of special grace.
Today’s Gospel, therefore, invites us to heed the words of John the Baptist and take to heart his invitation to “get the road ready for the Lord; make straight a path for him to travel!”
Today’s Gospel is the good news that Jesus wants to help us. He wants to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. All we have to do is to ask and to persevere in asking, as de Foucauld did.